Imagine a Rip Van Dakota conking out 41 years ago and waking up yesterday at Dakotafest. After saying, "Jeepers, those are big tractors!" and asking, "Where'd everyone get the Star Trek communicators?" Rip grabs a ribeye sandwich (eight bucks? Lucky for Rip he fell asleep with a gold coin in his pocket), and ambles over to the blue and white SDSU tent, where the Senate candidates' debate is just starting.
Rip listens earnestly to these four unfamiliar men. While the alphabet soup confuses him (ACA? EB-5?), Rip can evaluate their intellect and tone. What does he conclude?
Knowing nothing else, reading no polls or press, not chatting yet with anyone in the crowd, Rip thinks, "Gee, all four of these guys are serious and smart. That Howie guy sounds a bit wrapped up in abstractions and absolutes, but they all four sound about equally ready to be Senator.
"And boy, the other three really don't like that reedy-sounding Rounds fellow."
Here's my report of what Rip would ahve heard the candidates saying.
Gordon Howie featured his fondness for alliteration, saying our nation is in trouble because we are electing people "more concerned about polls, politics, and personality than principle." With his smooth video preacher's voice (I might be happier if he forsook politics for that calling), Howie said we need to return to "faith, freedom and purpose" to make our country great again.
Howie alluded to EB-5, saying people shouldn't be able to buy citizenship.
Howie said America faces "dangerous days ahead" (a phrase that epitomizes the millennial language of church-state minglers like Howie), with the President behaving like an emperor, the Senate intent on destroying freedoms, and "GOP power brokers telling us we need to compomrise principles and vote for a big-government tax-and-spend politician." (I lean over an nudge Rip: He means that Rounds guy! Rip nods and shushes me; he's trying to listen.)
Abandoning any pretense of seeking common Indy ground with Democrats, Howie said he is a lifelong Republican and embraces the GOP platform. Howie called himself "the voice for change and a return to principle."
Republican Mike Rounds started by touting the 30% property tax relief that passed the Legislature while he was in the Legislature, as well as his ability to focus on issues and get results when he was governor. He bragged about balancing the budget every year (which Governor Dennis Daugaard had said in the same tent two hours earlier Rounds had not)
Rounds trotted out the "South Dakota common sense" line that he loves. Wait—trotted isn't accurate: He galloped that slogan with the same pep-squad passion I heard at the Lawrence County Lincoln Day dinner last April. We need to get big government out of South Dakota farms and ranches! he hollered. We need to pass Keystone XL and stop the carbon tax!
At first I thought Independent Larry Pressler sounded tame in comparison to Rounds's whoopedy hollerin'. But for all the guff and chuckles I've heard from folks who question Pressler's mental acuity, Pressler came out sounding as sharp and statesmanly as anyone else on stage. "I am heartbroken at poisonous relationship between Democrats and Republicans," said the former Senator. He lamented the growing debt and the inability of Congress to do anything.
Pressler then noted a New Year's Watertown Public Opinion editorial that said Pressler could be "game changer" in a closely divided Senate. If elected, Pressler would join two other Independents in the Senate who could work together to break the partisan gridlock. Pressler said an independent Senator (Sanders from Vermont) led the recent veterans bill to passage. Pressler said he could similar power for South Dakota.
Given such power, Pressler said he would work to relocate troops back home and use them to secure the border (careful, Larry: Posse Comitatus). He wants to reduce overseas spending, enhance some revenues, and work toward a balanced budget. He would also work on state projects as he did in the good old days with McGovern, Abdnor, and Daschle (McGovern! Rip whispers. Whatever happened to him? I shush him; I'm busy taking notes.)
Democrat Rick Weiland admitted that he's angry (but it's o.k.: we like Rick when he's angry!). Why shouldn't we all be angry when we have a "broken government hijacked by big-money special interests"? Watch that phrase: Weiland rang that populist theme consistently throughout the debate. He said the big thing he's heard on his every-town tours has been that South Dakotans want someone who will fight for everyday folks, not the big corporations that dodge taxes, and not Big Oil and Big Ag and Big Insurance that dictate policy.
Unlike Howie, Weiland skipped allusion and said "EB-5" up front. EB-5 fits his main theme as "the most egregious example" of big-money power gone wrong. He said we should not be selling citizenship through EB-5.
Weiland went right to his populist theme and said his number-one priority is to get big money out of public policy. For example, Weiland said the farm program takes our tax dollars and hands 75% of that money to big corporations (some would call that income redistribution). For further example, Weiland said we could have gotten better health care reform if insurance companies hadn't dictated the terms of the Affordable Care Act. (Hey, that's two priorities! But Rick is working on a theme here.)
Weiland said he looks at every issue through the prism of big money: "If you don't think [big money]'s a problem, you're not paying attention."
Howie said his first job will be to address "Obamacare." He believes in repeal and replace: repeal the law and replace anyone who supported it.
Then Howie cheated like Rick and named other priorities, although not as explicitly wrapping them in a theme. HOwie said he wants to stop government growth, cut spending, and put a lid on the debt (which latter idea I've told him is arbitrary and silly). "We've lost our way," Howie moaned (reaching again for that preacherly vibe). "The free market has made America great."
If Rounds had a unifying theme, it was to try to out-Howie Howie. Speaking to a tentful of farm-show attendees, he said he wants to "get control of" and "shut down" the EPA. He said the EPA is out of control and wants to regulate ditches and farm ponds. (No, it doesn't.) He said the EPA is doing more damage to the U.S. than (I was waiting for ISIS or auto-tune) any other bureaucracy.
For his own priority-creep, Rounds then jumped to saying we've got to fire Harry Reid as majority leader, begin balancing budgets, and repeal the ACA and replace it section by section with a portable patient-centered plan.
And then he repeated the claim that was debunked long before he started making it for political points, that we need to stop the ACA from taking $700 billion from Medicare. At this point, Rounds drew shouts of "No!" and "Lie! from the audience. Yes, Weiland had a lot of Dems in the audience, and they were torqued.
Rounds jumped back to bashing the EPA, saying the agency wants to increase the cost of energy, thinking higher taxes will encourage conservation. But Rounds said that won't work, because we'll all keep using the same amount of energy (demonstrating that Mike Rounds doesn't believe in empirical economic data that shows the obvious and predictable fact that if fuel prices go up, people use less fuel).
"Big government is biggest challenge," Rounds said passionately. He went almost shrill saying that government is trying to take our money and tell us how to run our businesses.
Pressler said his main priority is to "restore honesty in budgetary matters." Pressler appeared to mean telling the truth about both parties' fiscal values. He said the GOP is not more conservative on corporate subsidies or overseas military spending. Playing to the liberals (or is it just decent human beings?) that Howie doesn't want, Pressler said his fiscal conservatism isn't about cutting help to the poor and the elderly).
Flipping the partisan card, Pressler said President Clinton balanced the budget. He said that while he "disagree[s] with many things my friend from Harvard Law School association" Barack Obama does, he doesn't like the SDGOP resolution to impeach the President. "He's our President," said Pressler. "We need to work with him, talk with him." Playing the practical statesman rather than the right-wing panderer, Pressler said we won't be able to repeal the EPA, but we can get better treatment by working with the President instead of against him.
Now far from his original theme of fiscal honesty, Pressler threw in that Senator John McCain "has never met a war he doesn't like and would have had us in Syria had he won the Presidency. Pressler then returned to the idea of working with the President for his remaining two years in office on getting landowners relief from the EPA and improbing roads and airports through bipartisanship.
Given a rather broad question about changing Congress's abysmal public approval, the candidates basically had free shots for their favorite brief book pages. Howie wished for straight talk, then diverged unnecessarily to criticize Governor Daugaard, without saying his name, for not ruling out a fuel tax increase. Howie vowed not to vote for any tax increase.
Rounds said folks unhappy with Congress want straight talk (Mike! Gordon said that! Don't say what Gordon says!) and results. He then rattled off a series of lines, some new, some reheated, in this order:
—South Dakota balances its budget every year. He then
—We can't promise everything and borrow from future generations.
—Government should help those who can't help themselves.
—D.C. has decided they know better than we do how to spend our money.
Rounds spent a larger chunk of time rejecting no-tax pledges (here he goes responding to Howie again, and when you're responding to Gordon Howie, you're not winning). He doesn't do no-tax pledges because many in D.C. have taken the pledge and spend the money anyway (which seems like saying, "Other people take marriage vows and then cheat or divorce, so I'm not going to take marriage vows", not nearly as cogent a response as the pragmatic rejection of pledges last year). With the debt going up, pledges are the wrong solution.
The right solution, apparently, is to cut the EPA, to which Rounds eagerly returned. He said South Dakota farmers and racnhers do a better job of farming than bureacrats (a good continued focus on the Dakotafest audience). But then for good measure, Rounds jumped to another old hobbyhorse, his unbelievable and state-budget-busting call to abolish the Department of Education. Cut those 5,000 (unnamed, easily vilified for political purposes) bureaucrats making $102K each on average, he said, and spend that money to teach our kids.
Pressler returned to promoting the power of independents, claiming that the eleven Indies who have served in D.C. since his time in the Senate have all been very powerful for their states. He said Connecticut's Joe Lieberman found he became more powerful when he switched to the big I because he could work with both sides. Pressler disdained the "childish competition" betwee the two parties.
Pressler repeated the Watertown editorial and emphasized his pledge to serve one term. He said most Senators spend 52% of time raising money for next election; with no intent to seek re-election Pressler vowed, "I will work full time for you!" He said his one-termedness would leave the door open for all the young pols in the audience to plan to replace him. (If I hadn't been so fixed on taking notes, I'd have glanced around to see whose eyes twinkled more at that mention, Dusty Johnson's or Ryan Brunner's.)
Pressler expanded on his proposal to reduce overseasemilitary spending by bringing troops home. Troops in the U.S. would stimulate the economy around Ellsworth and elsewhere. Securing the border with our military would help clear the decks for immigration reform without spending another dime. Pressler averred that his "bring 'em home" and "secure the border" pitches are not isolationist. As the only veteran in the race, he believes in a strong defense but also in modernizing our forces and reducing waste.
Pressler threw in a call to repeal corporate, personal, and charitable deductions, but time ran out before he could specify which constituencies he would enrage with that revenue enhancement.
Weiland constructed the most coherent response to the question posed. "We gotta get big money out of politics," he repeated. Contributions from special interests cause pols to lose their way and represent donors instead of voters. Congress becomes beholden to special interests, people give up, and that's why the Congressional approval rating is so low. That was the question, and Weiland answered it.
Weiland then razzed Rounds, saying Mike wasn't interested in limiting contributions and SuperPac cash and did not respond to Weiland's offers to discuss doing so.
Weiland went after Mike's (and Weiland was first-naming here) EPA tirade, saying that repealing the EPA is not realistic. The EPA may overreach, but it does good for the country. He said the same of Rounds's inauthentic call to abolish the Department of Education. Weiland detoured into the state teacher shortage and lack of teacher pay, which really has nothing to do with the federal Department of Education, but which he used to lead into pointing out that as governor, Rounds cut education 25% over eight years (careful, Rick: on raw budget numbers, that statement is false; he needs to elaborate and talk about the state's share of K-12 funding compared to local and federal dollars... though I', not sure that share has gone down so much as been consistently awful throughout the Rounds Administration).
Speaking of bureaucrats, Weiland asked how many Rounds added as governor. The answer: 1,500! "That's a problem!" shouted Rick (and since Rick respects public servants, I'm sure he meant a problem for Rounds's political consistency). "People want honesty," Weiland said.
Affordable Care Act
I've alluded to this question as the point where Rounds lost his focus and momentum, showed his thin-skinnedness, and lost the debate.
The former governor said we have to repeal and replace the ACA section by section in a process that will take more than two weeks. Rounds seemed to claim that the ACA has no funding mechanism, even though that is patently false: the ACA included funding mechanisms and deficit reduction, unlike the Medicare drug benefit that President Bush signed in 2004.
Rounds raised the usual spectres, saying the ACA is the government thinking it knows better than us how to do health care, that "you can keep your doctor" was a lie (wait: who hasn't been able to keep their doctor?) just like "you can keep your insurance."
Rounds said we need to assure competition as we did in South Dakota, where we had 17 insurers to choose from, and let people choose their coverage (wait: we can choose our coverage; it's that a number of insurers have chosen not to offer plans on the exchanges that allow us to access the premium tax credit that Rounds's Republicans want to take away from South Dakotans).
Rounds decided he'd exhausted his ACA rhetoric, so he returned to saying the EPA must go away. He wants to get rid of the EPA's authority with the Raines Act to require Congressional approval for rule changes. And in complete divergence from the question, Rounds repeated that we balanced the budget every year when he was governor and offer the second-lowest taxes in the nation if smoke and the lowest if you don't smoke.
Pressler again played the grown up, saying we "have to keep ACA as practical matter," but change it as necessary. After two Presidential elections, a Supreme Court ruling, and even this year's election, the Senate won't have the votes to beat cloture, let alone a veto. "My purpose in going to Washington is to get things done," said Pressler. He noted that after the SDGOP voted to impeach President Obama, he invited the President to come to South Dakota and talk about how to better fit the law to South Dakota counties.
Staying on topic better than Rounds, Pressler said the ACA has done some good things for South Dakota. He said South Dakota doctors tell him the law supports low-wage workers and rural health care needs.
Weiland licked his chops and said he's been eager for this conversation with Rounds. He said Rounds's claim to be losing sleep over the ACA taking Medicare away from his dear old dad about his sleeplessness and his dad has been bunk since 2012. He said Rounds's own ad admits that the ACA added ten years to trust fund solvency, and the Medicare trustees just added another four years, saying the ACA's changes have extended the viability of the fund to 2030. "Don't let Rounds get away with [his Medicare claim], because it's not true."
Weiland said the problem with the Affordable Care Act is that it is not affordable enough. He said that back when he ran AARP and today as he tours the state, no one on Medicare ever offers to trade it for private insurance. That's why Weiland wants to open Medicare to folks of any age who want to buy in. You want choice? Let consumers choose between "Mike's big private insurance policies" and Medicare!
Weiland said making Medicare a public option would make Medicare more solvent. He pointed to Medicare's lower overhead, noting that the Medicare chief gets $175K a year, far less than private insurance executives.
THrowing one last punch before time was called, Weiland reminded us that the Affordable Care Act stopped insurers from yanking our coverage when we get sick and need insurance most. That response drew the loudest cheers of the day from his supporters.
Howie said the ACA is a bad law "from start to finish." But he went straight to questioning Rounds's credibility as an ACA opponent, saying the governor sent his chief of staff to kill Howie's ACA nullification bill in 2010. Howie says he had run his bill by Attorney General Marty Jackley and gotten confirmation that his bill would not have hindered the state's (mostly unsuccessful) lawsuit against the ACA and had the potential to help.
Howie said the ACA is a budget buster (no, it reduces deficits), then said Rounds imposed regulations on raw milk, and we can't trust that mindset to eliminate the EPA. Howie added that Rounds sat on the National Governors Association board that created Common Core. (Just how hard do we have to work to keep these guys focused on one question?)
At this point, Rounds fatefull invoked the rebuttal rule and ripped into Howie, as I've reported elsewhere.
Rounds also threw out the hyperbole that Rick likes having the feds in control of our health care. He said (incorrectly) that putting everybody on Medicare (which is not Rick's plan) would hurt those who have it now (which ignores the logic of Rounds's own insurance industry that says inviting younger, healthier people into a risk pool helps everyone on the plan)
ROunds repeated his claim that the ACA takes (he used the verb "changes") $716 billion in the Medicare trust fund. And then, in a fit of foolishness, invoked Sarah Palin's death panels, called them rationing panels, and exhorted us all to look them up in ACA Section 3403.
Howie gamely retorted that other states passed nullification bills like his (to no effect, obviously, since we're still having the ACA debate. He invoked the 10th Amendment and the sovereignty of states but did not wave a Confederate flag.
Weiland dished back at Rounds, saying that balanced budget ROunds brags up is required by our state constitution. He said Rounds left seven of eight budgtes unbalanced and took money from the feds to reach balance. He said South Dakota gets 47% of its budget from the federal government (the number varies; this year's budget puts our federal mooching at 39.6%). Weiland doesn't call it mooching; he calls it a partnership.
Weiland said Rounds "isn't being completely honest" about Medicare. He said that if Rounds doesn't like government running health insurance, then Rounds must be advocating that we get rid of Medicare. He hung the Paul Ryan budget on ROunds's neck and said that while Medicare may need reform, he'd rather give people a choice than follow Rounds's insurance industry perspective.
Pressler joined the rebuttal fray but didn't say much about ACA. He talked about deficit reduction, expressed concern that a dollar collapse would hurt agriculture, talked about Goldwater campaigning for him as a fiscal conservative way back when, and advocated increasing teacher pay, taking care of senior citizens, and cutting corporate subsidies. "Throwing apples at each other on Senate floor and at the PResident, we're not going to accomplish anything."
The final question was on EB-5, which I have already documented as a serious and successful bombardment exposing Mike Rounds's weakness on this crucial issue.
Howie closed by calling Weiland and Pressler back Obama's liberal agenda, while Rounds left South Dakota a deficit and vetoed the first abortion ban. Howie offered a better choice, "principled conservative leadership."
Rounds said he believes in results and said his results as governor are why young people are coming back to South Dakota in droves (what? where?). He said we don't buld quality of life by asking for more federal dollars. We need the right to pick our doctors (I'm still looking for the line by which ACA limits my doctor choice more than my private insurer).
Pressler said with the enthusiasm of a younger man that he is eager to go back to Washington and do a whole number of projects. He said he's "brimming" with projects, like air service and grain shipping. He's eager to work on a bipartisan basis. He asked for cash, noting he has 1% of the money his two major opponents have raised. But even if he's not swimming in cash, he said he's basking in the "glorious freedom of independence."
Weiland got the last word, noting that he has never held public office in Pierre or D.C. He will continue to visit town after town. He told voters to follow the money. He said the great challenge of this generation is to take the country back from big money that gets in the way of good government.
* * *
So again, I look at Rip Van Dakota and ask what he thinks. He smelled the standard level of bull and digressions. He's really eager to learn about these hyperlink thingies that I tell him will provide background on all the claims he heard. But not knowing anything else he says the performance on that stage showed him four men equal to the task of debating, with no clear front-runner.
Rip is eager to hear the remaining debates, which promise to be lively and interesting. But first, he wants to get one of those communicators....