Analysis: 4th District GOP debate was a disservice to voters

20200610 CD4 Debate

If it’s a race for Congress in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, you can be sure that the Republicans in the contest will spend as much time attacking Nancy Pelosi as they do discussing their Democratic opponent. And, true to form, the four vying to take on Ben McAdams in November mentioned the current Speaker of the House more than the freshman Democrat during their final debate on Wednesday evening. 

It’s a tried and true, yet mostly unsuccessful tactic that Utah Republicans have dusted off for more than a decade. You might remember the “Matheson=Pelosi” signs that popped up around Utah when Morgan Philpot unsuccessfully challenged the incumbent Democrat in 2010. Republicans have returned to the same playbook from time to time in ensuing years. Most recently Mia Love purchasing billboards in 2018 saying “McAdams=Pelosi.” Given that McAdams defeated Love, albeit by the narrowest of margins, it’s safe to say invoking the House Speaker as a political boogeyman has failed to have a meaningful impact outside of the Republican base. Perhaps invoking Nancy Pelosi will work better as a tale told to scare Republican children around the campfire.

Wednesday’s dreary slog of a debate tackled several well-worn topics for Republicans, including that old saw “what is the proper role of government?” Missing was any meaningful discussion of the protests about racial inequality and police violence, the use of military force to quell civil unrest, national security or international trade, to name a few timely topics.

Instead the four Republicans seeking the nomination, former NFL player Burgess Owens, former radio host Jay McFarland, State Rep. Kim Coleman and businessman Trent Christensen, were left to answer questions about which Democrat in Congress they would try to make an ally of if they won in November. Christensen picked Tulsi Gabbard, forgetting she’s leaving Congress at the end of the year. Coleman mentioned her work with Utah Democrat Jim Dabakis, who is apparently the only Democrat in the state Republicans can name. The other two didn’t answer.

One of the only questions about policy tackled the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and whether the trillions of dollars in spending approved by Congress was sufficient to address the economic impact of the virus. 

Christensen, as he did in the previous debate, said any further financial bailout money for states should be tied to whether they lift coronavirus restrictions on businesses.

“Blue states are not committed to businesses like red states. There are still states holding out. We need to tie any future spending to states being 100 percent open,” he said. 

“As long as we have to negotiate a stimulus bill with the left, we’re gonna get a bunch of junk,” said Coleman, arguing for Republican control of the House.

Owens praised President Trump’s response, saying he shut down the economy “to show how much he loved the American people.”

“There are people who don’t want us to win. When the left has too much power, they abuse it. We have a president who understands that, and we need a House that backs that up,” he said, taking Coleman’s point one step further.

McFarland said the trillions of dollars in spending approved by Congress gave him pause, but it was necessary to meet the moment.

“I don’t want to hand trillions of debt to our grandchildren. If I’m elected I’ll be rallying to get more stimulus. But we’ll have to address the debt once we fix the economy,” he said.

The rest of the debate was mostly a merengue of political ideas, light and fluffy, then quickly forgotten. 

Do the candidates support allowing members of Congress to vote remotely, as Democrats have pushed for during the coronavirus outbreak? Owens, Coleman and Christensen said Congress needs to show up to do their work, while McFarland said the less time lawmakers spend in Washington, the better. 

What’s the first issue they’ll tackle if they win in November?

Christensen said he wants to make the Trump tax cuts permanent. Coleman said she’d work on abortion legislation with Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. Owens said he wants to put a stop to colleges churning out graduates who have “been taught to hate America.” McFarland said his top priority would be tackling the debt. 

After more than half an hour of discussion, it appeared that moderator Boyd Matheson would finally challenge the candidates with a difficult topic, specifically the protests that have sprung up nationwide following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Instead, he asked them to discuss the role of elected officials in handling “wedge issues” that divide people. Needless to say, the candidates struggled to find their footing with such a clunky question.

Later in the debate, candidates were given all of 30 seconds to answer a question about whether climate change is real and how should government deal with the issue.

The importance of political debates has been waning in recent years. With the advent of social media and the ability of candidates to take their message directly to voters, the need to stand on a debate stage for an hour and compress complex issues into the space of a minute or even 30 seconds is greatly diminished. 

National Republicans have high hopes for whichever candidate emerges from the four-way primary in June. Utah’s 4th Congressional District is among the most Republican seats in the nation, and the GOP would desperately love to put the district back in the Republican column. Given that level of importance, voters deserved a substantive debate on the issues, with a real discussion of policy. The candidates deserved a serious forum to make their case to voters. 

Instead, they got neither.