It was the first of two planned debates for the men vying to be North Dakota’s next U.S. senator. Each candidate used the opportunity to define his own stance, while distinguishing himself from his opponent through jabs and criticism.
During the one-hour debate at Fargo’s Ramada Plaza Suites, Hoeven and Potter answered questions on a number of issues: the economy, federal spending, the stimulus package, Social Security, energy, health care reform, immigration and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (For concise analysis of the candidates’ positions, pick up today’s edition of The Forum.)
I’ve observed and interviewed both candidates throughout the past nine months, and much of the answers they offered were ones presented before. The overwhelming majority of Hoeven’s and Potter’s statements stayed true to the messages and policy proposals they’ve communicated throughout their campaigns. For Hoeven, it was an emphasis on growing the economy through job creation and empowering small business. For Potter, it was a message of progressive and somewhat-undefinable politics that, he says, makes him stand apart on many issues.
The trickle-down impact of national party politics came to light here and there throughout the hour.
Potter mentioned at least once a common criticism made by national Democrats: Poor leadership from the Bush administration contributed to an economic free-fall, forcing the government to intervene in order to save it.
Meanwhile, Hoeven took a more repetitive approach to echoing current GOP party rhetoric, likening Potter many times to the Obama administration and Democratic leadership in Congress. By a rough count, Hoeven mentioned the collective of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration at least a half-dozen times (or about once every 10 minutes). [Potter retorted in his closing comments: "I started out in this race by saying I'm going to be an independent voice for North Dakota, and I keep hearing that I'm going to be like Harry Reid. Holy smokes, I won't even vote for Harry Reid!"]
The most fiery part of the debate came in a question about energy policy: How would the candidates go about trying to wean the U.S. government off foreign oil?
Hoeven had first shot at the question and advocated for a comprehensive energy policy similar to “Empower North Dakota,” one of his initiatives as governor. He spent the allotted answer time detailing the benefits of the initiative, and said “that’s what we’ve got to do for this country.”
Potter responded, emphasizing the economic danger of America’s dependence on foreign oil and saying the way to combat large deficits is through investing in energy technology.
In Hoeven’s 1-minute rebuttal, he contrasted North Dakota’s approach to energy policy with the nation’s, where proposals like cap-and-trade or restrictions on hydraulic frakking threaten to harm North Dakota’s thriving energy industry.
“There is incredible opportunity in energy to get this national economy going, but we need a Congress and an administration that understands how you create certainty rather than uncertainty,” Hoeven said.
Here’s where things got heated: In Potter’s rebuttal, he turned the conversation to North Dakota’s oil boom and criticized Hoeven’s gubernatorial leadership. Potter said the state rushed into the boom too fast, and Hoeven poorly managed the challenges associated with it (such as a lack of housing and increased housing costs in oil patch communities).
“It’s great for the economy, it’s great for the budget and the state – but it is tough on those towns,” Potter said of the oil boom. “A senior citizen living in Williston today, how are they supposed to pay their rent when Halliburton can come in and pay 60 percent more than they would pay?”
Moderator Charley Johnson sought to move on to the next question, but Hoeven interjected and forced an additional 30-second rebuttal to address Potter’s attack.
“I find it ironic that in a time when we have a national recession, Tracy wants to go to Washington, D.C., because he knows how to slow things down,” Hoeven jabbed to slight laughter. “We’re always going to have challenges – the key is, do you want challenges of growth and development like we have in North Dakota, or of decline?”
Because Hoeven had another rebuttal, Potter was allotted one, also.
“There was no business plan,” Potter criticized. “You’re saying we’re building housing. We shouldn’t be building housing. We shouldn’t be doing that; It’s not government’s role. It’s government’s role to build the roads, absolutely … The housing should’ve come on the front end by saying, ‘Where exactly are you going to put your workers? Where are they going to go? Because it’s displacing our local people.’”
Once again, Hoeven tried to force a rebuttal – but this time, Johnson stifled the attempt and joked, “I’m not sure the question even got answered.”
Another instance that drew tension between Hoeven and Potter came in the final question: How would the candidates have voted on Wednesday’s Senate effort to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”?
Potter offered a concise answer:
“I happened to see a cartoon yesterday that I thought summed this up just absolutely beautiful. I’ll try to describe it: It was three coffins draped with flags, and the captions is, “Which one was gay?” I absolutely believe that we have to eliminate “don’t ask, don’t tell” and welcome the service of any American who wants to serve in our Armed Forces. It’s as simple as that.”
Hoeven responded in longer fashion and somewhat vaguely (I confirmed with Hoeven following the debate that he would’ve voted against the Senate proposal):
“I believe that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is working, and I think to the extent that we’d change it, you’ve gotta go to the military and say to the military, “OK, what do we need to do here?” When you talk about changing how the military works, this is serious stuff.
We are a safe country, we are a free nation because of our military. And one of the greatest honors I’ve had as governor is to work with our National Guardsmen. The men and women in our National Guard are absolutely amazing, as are our reserves. But so often we get these different agendas in this country, and we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to stop it, and step back and say, “These are people that go out and put their lives on the line in foreign countries.” Their lives are on the line, so for them and their families, we need to make sure that we get it right when we’re talking about our military, whatever it is.
So we have to make sure that we’re consulting with people in the military if we’re going to make changes and make darn sure that it works for them and what they’re trying to do, because they’re out there putting their lives on the line for us every day, and I know, for all of us in America, we know that we owe them everything, and this is just one more example where we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to support them.”
In their closing arguments, the candidates offered quick rebuttals on the issue, with Potter saying he “absolutely disagreed” with Hoeven’s position, and Hoeven emphasizing he “honors all military service – every single one of our men and women in uniform, no matter what their religion, creed, preference.”
That’s just a glimpse into Thursday’s debate.
For those who observed it or listened in, I’m curious to know your take: Did one perform better than the other? What did you think of their positions and the policies they proposed?