Before all the attention shifts to tonight's first of three presidential debates, let's review last night's first, and likely only, 26th Congressional District debate between Democrat Julia Brownley and Republican Tony Strickland.
If you tuned in for even a few minutes, you couldn't have missed Strickland hammering away at what he clearly considers to be a decisive advantage -- the fact that he grew up in Ventura County, went to high school in Ventura County, and has lived in Ventura County for nearly all his adult life. He used the word "neighbors" three times to describe district voters, he talked of meeting people he grew up as he walks precincts, and if he described Brownley once as "Nancy Pelosi's" handpicked choice to run in Ventura County, he did it at least a half dozen times. His best line in hitting upon that theme: "I didn't need Mapquest to understand how to get here tonight."
But in the specifics of their answers, it was Brownley who provided the hometown touch, In response to a question about the importance of preserving Naval Base Ventura County, it was Brownley -- who has represented Port Hueneme for the last six years -- who was able to cite the base's unique strategic and geographic qualities that make it stand out as a vital cog in the national defense. And it was Brownley who was able to work in a story about an actual, named neighbor. In response to a question about helping small businesses, she cited the case of Oxnard entrepreneur Marissa Lopez, who recently opened a shop in Oxnard by taking advantage of federal programs to assist small businesses.
On Medicare, each scored points. Strickland distanced himself even further than before from the Paul Ryan budget's Medicare provisions. Previously, he had publicly stated only that he disagreed with the fact that Ryan's budget would begin changing the program for those under 55 and that he believed no changes should affect anyone 50 or older. But last night he said he also opposed Ryan's idea to provide voluntary, private-insurance vouchers instead of direct federally insured care to beneficiaries. And he added a personal touch to assert his support for protecting the program: "My mom would kill me if I touched Medicare."
Brownley ably defended the charge from Republicans everywhere -- and Strickland in spades, in his campaign mailings -- that Democrats in Congress cut $716 billion from Medicare as part of of the Affordable Care Act. She noted that both Democrats and Republicans (as in Ryan's budget) both scored the same savings from Medicare, but that the Democratic plan used the money to close the doughnut hole in the Medicare prescription drug program to better help seniors afford prescription drugs, to provide preventive and wellness care for seniors and to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund. Republicans, she said, used the money "to give tax breaks to the wealthy."
And her zinger on that issue was this: Strickland, during the four years he was out of the Legislature from 2004-08, formed a California chapter of the group the Club for Growth. Strickland, she noted, once described its former national president, Steve Moore, as his "hero." And it was Moore who once famously called senior citizens "the most selfish group in America today."
Private polling results in the district have been tightly held, but there were clues from the candidates that likely indicate how the presidential preference polling in the district is trending. Both borrowed themes from President Obama, with Brownley repeatedly talking of how she, like Obama, wants to move "Ventura County and the country forward." For his part, Strickland borrowed Obama's line about energy policy, saying he supports the "all of the above" option for energy development, including both green energy and developing petroleum resources. It was noteworthy, too, that Strickland never criticized Obama or sought to link his Democratic opponent with the Democratic president. He tried only to associate her with Pelosi.
Neither candidate stumbled much, although Strickland might have wanted to take back his original answer after California Lutheran University political science professor Herb Gooch asked the candidates the same question that Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown had tripped up on the night before.
Strickland said that Chief Justice John Roberts had been his favorite before Roberts sided with the majority in upholding most of the Affordable Care Act this summer. But then he defaulted to Clarence Thomas. Then Brownley, personalizing the question by relating how both shared ties to Cornell University and how she has met the justice a few times, named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Finally, Strickland said that, upon "further reflection," his favorite was Samuel Alito.
Brownley declined to be specific when asked what income tax rate would constitute the "fair share" she said several times that the wealthy should pay. But Strickland made it official that he supports tax cuts for the wealthy; he said without hesitation that the current top rate of 35 percent is "too high."
Unlike the presidential debate, it is unlikely that Tuesday's congressional debate will have any real influence on the election. It's doubtful whether a significant number of voters either watched the live stream at VCStar.com, listened to the radio broadcast on KCLU or will watch the tape when its shown later this week or next on C-SPAN. And since both candidates avoided any mistakes that could be amplified in campaign advertising against them, the debate probably didn't win or lose them any votes.
Still, there was something uplifting about seeing the two candidates standing face to face, answering questions for 90 minutes and engaging in a dialogue about issues of importance. It would have been a shame, and a disservice to Ventura County voters, to have this entire multimillion-dollar campaign come and go without even one opportunity for discourse.