In this era of slick television commercials, glossy four-color mailers and scripted candidates' "forums" that are supposed to pass for debates, it's easy to forget what actual give-and-take between candidates actually sounds like.
It sounds exactly like the hour-plus-long exchange that took place today in Valencia, in a robust debate between Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon and Democrat Lee Rogers in the 25th Congressional District.
First, give McKeon some credit. Many candidates, especially incumbents, in so-called "safe" districts treat debates the same way most folks treat root canals -- as something to be avoided at all cost. But McKeon agreed to stand on stage alongside Rogers at a luncheon sponsored by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Industry Association. And he did so knowing that Rogers was going to press him hard on issues of personal and professional ethics.
Did he ever.
McKeon, in his opening remarks, noted that Rogers "has sent out some mudslinging things about me. I hope the mudslinging will stop, but that will be up to him."
Rogers shot back, "If you don't like the negative information, you probably shouldn't give me so much material."
During the course of the debate, Rogers raised such issues as McKeon's acceptance of a VIP mortgage from Countrywide as part of the lender's "friends of Angelo" program initiated by disgraced former CEO Angelo Mozilo; McKean's contributions from defense contractors and his advocacy as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee of some weapons projects that Pentagon officials haven't requested; and his decision to pay his wife out of campaign funds to serve as treasurer of his campaign committee.
On the Countrywide loan issue, McKean said he was not aware that he was receiving any sort of special treatment and that the interest rate on the loan was in fact less favorable than rates that were available to everyday customers at other banks. "He can talk about this all he wants," McKeon said, "but it only exists in his mind as a political ploy."
Rogers likened McKeon's discomfort at having those issues raised to the former television program "This is Your Life," in which participants were visited by friends from their past to recount parts of their life history. "What I've tried to do is show him an episode of 'This is Your Record,'" Rogers said.
McKeon landed some shots of his own. He noted that Rogers had hired "a campaign treasurer who stole millions from campaign treasuries" ("I thought you would like that," Rogers retorted), and scored a point about Rogers' zeal to find scandal where none might exist by recounting Rogers' attack on him over his decision to hire a district director who had a long-ago felony conviction on his record. The individual in question, Morris Thomas, is highly regarded in the Santa Clarita community and McKeon skillfully and earnestly deflected Rogers' criticism of that hire by saying he is "a believer in forgiveness."
In addition to the give-and-take on ethics issues, there was also a vigorous debate over policy issues, from Congress' playing politics with the debt ceiling in 2011, ultimately leading to a downgrade of U.S. credit and a stock market plunge, to the fate of the Bush tax cuts, to high-speed rail, to the high-risk bill that created the so-called "sequestration" process now scheduled to kick in next year, forcing steep cuts in military and nonmilitary spending. There was spirited disagreement on all those issues.
For all the attacks and counterattacks, the exchanges had a civil, respectful quality, even as there was an atmosphere of elevated tension.
Only two cheap shots slipped in.
When Rogers criticized McKeon for defending the stalemate over the debt ceiling, he noted that the decision to do that was much like someone charging things on a credit card and then refusing to pay the bill. A family wouldn't do that, Rogers said, adding pointedly that neither would a business. It was clearly a backdoor reference to the fact that McKeon's family business declared bankruptcy.
In his closing remarks, McKeon referenced Rogers' having raised the issue of converting campaign money into personal money by paying his wife from his campaign account. "You brought my wife into this," he said -- an apparent justification for his then asserting that while Rogers "was drawing $300,000 a year, your wife was drawing unemployment."
Those unfortunate cheap shots aside, the debate was engaging, enlightening and had an only-in-America feel about it: A powerful member of Congress, back in his district, defending his record at election time against an aggressive challenger and making the case for his re-election. Both men were well spoken, well versed on the issues and unafraid to speak their minds.
Nobody ever said politics had to be sterile or bland.