I attended the Warner vs. Gilmore debate at The Homestead yesterday, and, I’ll be honest, it was predictable and a bit dry. Before I go into full detail, I’ll touch on some of the major elements of each candidate’s debate performance:
Warner: Gov. Warner emphasized his bipartisan record as Governor, and mentioned by name (on more than one occasion) some of his high-profile Republican supporters. He talked of the need for a coalition of “radical centrists” in the Senate. He talked about the growth of Virginia under his leadership, and its decline under the leadership of Gov. Gilmore. Warner referenced and admonished the vitriolic tone of Gilmore’s campaign so far, and accused him of “name calling.”
Gilmore: Gov. Gilmore did a lot of talking about trust. He kept stressing that Virginians will have a choice this fall between a candidate who does what he says he’s going to do (I assume Gov. Gilmore was talking about himself), and a candidate who said he wasn’t going to raise taxes when he ran for governor and then did it anyway. He also tried his best to make the majority of the debate about energy policy, with emphasis placed on offshore and ANWR drilling. Gilmore accused Gov. Warner of intentional mischaracterizations several times throughout the debate, and kept calling him a typical Washington politician.
As I just mentioned, the big issue of the day was ANWR and offshore drilling. Health care was touched on only briefly, and I can recall no discussion at all on educational policy or social security. Even the Iraq War, which is normally an attention magnet in debates, took a back seat to drilling. This was to be expected, of course. Gov. Gilmore’s campaign believes quite firmly that they can use the issue of domestic oil drilling to their own advantage. If they can frame the issue just right, they’re hoping that they will seem considerate of Americans being robbed at the pump while making Gov. Warner seem like an out-of-touch tree hugger.
Here’s the essence of the oil drilling arguments presented yesterday:
Gilmore: I support a comprehensive energy plan that includes wind, solar, biofuels, coal, and nuclear. But, I also support off-shore drilling and ANWR drilling, because those are the two things that will offer the most immediate benefit to Virginians in distress. Oil prices will go down if it’s clear that there’s more on the way! Mark Warner doesn’t want to drill!
Warner: I also support a comprehensive energy plan, but, unlike Jim Gilmore, I don’t think that drilling is the primary solution. I agree with John McCain’s plan to lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling and leave that decision up to the states. ANWR should remain protected and off-limits from the impact of oil drilling. We need sensible energy policies that emphasize fuel efficiency and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels (but not corn-based ethanol).
Gilmore: That’s a mischaracterization! I don’t believe that ANWR and offshore drilling is the primary solution, but it has to be part of the mix, and will yield the most immediate benefit. Mark Warner agrees with radical Democrats on ANWR and has changed his position on offshore drilling!
Warner: Have not. I have the same position on offshore drilling that I’ve always had! The states should decide!
Gilmore: Have, too! You can’t be trusted! *sticks out tongue*
While I may have exaggerated the above discourse a little bit, most of it is pretty true to what was actually said. I didn’t think that either candidate emerged from debate on the issue of drilling as the winner. It was more like a long and bloody dagger fight with no coup de grâce. This was one of those times during the debate when both candidates were unimpressive simultaneously.
Obviously, Jim Gilmore failed to impress on the issue because he actually believes that drilling for more oil at the expense of the environment is good policy if we want to… um… move away from using oil and save the environment.
Mark Warner failed to impress because he didn’t speak strongly enough about how truly ridiculous Gilmore’s drilling plans are. Instead, he gave a pretty vague answer as to why he doesn’t support ANWR drilling and then he made clear to everyone in the room that he agrees with John McCain’s plan: we should lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling and then let any states that want to drill do so. It was a very mild answer on a subject that I, for one, feel passionately about. I’m sure most readers of this blog feel the same way.
That said, I’d like to take a moment to run through the highs and lows of the debate as a whole.
Jim Gilmore’s high points were:
- Channeling the debate and post-debate coverage onto the infernal issue of oil drilling, which is what he had wanted to do all along.
- Remaining on the offensive for a larger portion of the debate than Gov. Warner.
- Avoiding any huge gaffes (In other words, not saying anything more crazy than usual).
Gilmore’s low points were:
- Making a group of applauding spectators feel stupid when he didn’t enter the room until about 15 minutes after his introduction.
- A less-than-convincing argument in favor of oil drilling: Common sense says that If you’re going to frame an entire debate around your opponent’s opposition to domestic oil drilling, you’d better be able to effectively sell your own position in favor of it. Someone forgot to tell that to Jim Gilmore.
- Repetition: Gilmore sounded a bit like a broken record. He accused Mark Warner of mischaracterizations more times than I could count, he tried on multiple occasions to paint Mark Warner as the typical politician in the race, and he kept talking about “trust.” His debate performance was just not dynamic.
- He may have alienated some moderate Republicans by harshly dismissing Warner’s crossover appeal, and suggesting that Gov. Warner’s Republican supporters were all “big-spending” politicians who supported Warner’s “big-spending” programs.
- His decision to speak in favorable terms about President George W. Bush.
Warner’s high points were:
- The “more successful Governor” debate: Gov. Warner did a very good job contrasting his own governorship with Gilmore’s. His message was that both men running for Senate have been elected Governor by the people of Virginia. One proved himself to be an incompetent leader in that capacity; the other made Virginia the “best-managed state in the nation.” He conveyed this message pretty well.
- The children’s health insurance debate: Warner asked Gilmore at one point during the debate why his administration dropped the ball on SCHIP, which coaxed Gilmore into a diatribe against SCHIP and the irresponsible Liberal welfare mentality that it represents. The result was that Gov. Warner looked caring, while Gov. Gilmore looked like a total creep.
- Successfully tying Gilmore to Bush: Warner was presented with an opportunity to do this when Gov. Gilmore was asked about his view of President Bush’s policies. Warner seized the opportunity, which resulted in what may have been the hardest hit from either candidate in yesterday’s debate.
- Consistently parrying Gilmore’s attacks well enough to avoid any hard hits or lasting damages.
Warner’s low points were:
- A tenuous attempt at rebuking Gilmore’s loopy energy policy.
- Making some Liberal Democrats in the audience feel a little bit alienated by openly agreeing with John McCain on domestic drilling, appearing to distance himself from the Obama health care plan, and flatly rejecting Al Gore’s latest environmental challenge.
Overall, I’d say Warner had the better day, but nobody in the room was blown away by him. Gilmore did nothing at the debate that was of any real benefit to his campaign, but, as I said, he also didn’t shoot himself in the foot (although, look for the bit about George W. Bush to end up in a pro-Warner ad later this year).
The debate won’t be remembered as a key point in this campaign, but, then again, if the debate were meant to be high-stakes in the first place, it wouldn’t have been held in Bath County, and it would have been televised. It was intended primarily to cap off the Virginia Bar Association’s annual summer meeting, with its secondary intent being to provide political junkies with something neat to do on a Saturday morning. I’d say it did both.
On a personal note: After the debate, I was walking through the halls of The Homestead on my way out, and I suddenly realized that David Broder was walking right behind me. I’ve watched Meet The Press every Sunday since I was 14 years old, so I’m quite familiar with his work, as well as his prestige as a journalist. As you can probably imagine, spotting him in my home town of Hot Springs was surreal.