Stewart, Ghorbani deliver a mostly solid debate performance despite a few stumbles

Unfortunately, the lasting impact from Monday night’s 2nd Congressional District debate will be the disheveled man who rushed the stage and yelled “vaccines cause autism” into Rep. Chris Stewart’s microphone.

That’s a shame. As the Utah Debate Commission finally delivered an engaging discussion between two candidates that wasn’t choked off by the restrictions from their usual straight-jacket-tight format. 

In the first half of the debate, Stewart and his Democratic opponent, Shireen Ghorbani, deftly discussed healthcare, managing growth, air quality, and the exploding federal deficit with a few notable, but not many disagreements.

Access to healthcare highlighted a big difference between the candidates. Stewart pilloried Obamacare, calling it a “dishonest” program. He claimed premiums for Utahns on the Affordable Care Act went up 64%. That figure isn’t quite the truth as an Associated Press analysis found premium hikes are stabilizing after two years of sharp increases. That analysis found the average premium rose $165 from 2017 to 2018, but federal subsidies increased, too, so many Utahns actually saw their rates drop this year. 

Ghorbani, who says her mother’s death from cancer prompted her to jump into the race, called for “true and full reform” on healthcare, making sure everyone has access to care, but wouldn’t elaborate on what a healthcare “revolution” would look like. In that answer, Ghorbani walked all the way up to the “Medicare for all” line without crossing it. 

Next up was the ballooning federal deficit, which jumped more than 20 percent during the first 10 months of FY2018. Ghorbani said the main reason why the debt has exploded was the $1.5 trillion tax cut passed by GOP lawmakers at the end of 2017.  She also criticized plans being floated by some Republicans in Congress for another round of tax cuts which would add an estimated $3.8 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. But getting that spending under control will require some tough choices.

“I understand we have to put everything on the table and understand how we get this spending under control,” she said. Ghorbani suggested cutting or changing the Trump tax cuts would be an acceptable place to start with the deficit. 

“There are ways we can spend our money better,” she said. “We’re overspending on corporate giveaways instead of prioritizing working families.”

Stewart defended the tax cuts, saying they have supercharged the economy and stock market and claimed the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office said the tax cuts would “pay for themselves” through growth. That’s also not true, as the most recent CBO projection from April says the tax cuts would add nearly $1.9 trillion to the total deficit between 2018 and 2028. 

Stewart said he ran for Congress because of the debt problem. “We have to remember you can’t have trillion dollar deficits that go on forever.”

Stewart, who voted for the GOP tax plan, but against the trillion-dollar omnibus spending bill passed by Congress, said making simple changes to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare would be a good step toward getting that spending under control, suggesting means testing for Social Security recipients and possibly increasing the retirement age.

Ghorbani shot back that those programs are not “entitlements,” rather they are “earned benefits” that Americans worked for their entire lives. “There is room for reform but to say we are going to cut is an unacceptable vision of the future,” she said.

The two agreed on President Donald Trump’s tariffs; both candidates thought they were bad policy. Neither believes the White House plan to offer bailouts to farmers affected by the tariffs was a good idea. 

The second half of the debate was a clear win for Stewart. Ghorbani stumbled badly when discussing foreign policy, and seemed out of her element. That’s understandable as Stewart sits on the House Intelligence Committee, so he has a built-in advantage, which he took full advantage of.

However, when asked to identify the biggest threat to national security, Ghorbani tried to pivot to President Donald Trump, while also referencing North Korea, Russia, and the Taliban.

“The person in the White House is not leading the way we deserve,” she said. “We have strained relationships where we shouldn’t.”

“Donald Trump is not the greatest threat to national security,” Stewart shot back. If this race gets closer, you can expect to see that exchange in a pro-Stewart campaign ad.

Stewart then went on to identify China as the biggest threat to U.S. security, after name dropping National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. 

“China is the thing our children will have to deal with. China is strategically our long-term greatest threat,” said Stewart.

When the discussion shifted to Russian interference in U.S. elections, Stewart took an entirely new position on the topic that he has not stated publicly before. Stewart has long said the Russians did interfere in the election, but he has publicly doubted that the intent was to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Stewart clung to that doubt, even though the intelligence community issued a report in 2017 stating Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.” Stewart’s brand new position on Russian interference is the CIA “rushed their analysis” about Russian interference and “didn’t comply with normal tradecrafts.” It was a jarring reversal from his previous position.

The two differed on immigration policy, with Ghorbani advocating for a “compassionate and humane system that doesn’t lock kids in cages,” while Stewart blamed the Obama administration for the pictures of immigrant children behind bars that spread on social media. 

When discussing the growing student loan debt problem, Stewart said the federal government should let the free market introduce competition to lower interest rates for debtors. Ghorbani said that didn’t work out too well the last time. 

“Students got fleeced and driven to bankruptcy. There’s a serious concern when turning it over to the markets. History has shown us that doesn’t work,” she cautioned.

The latest survey finds an 11-point margin between Stewart and Ghorbani, with Stewart leading 45-34%.