Seattle was Dodge City on Sunday, and not just because it was the final showdown between two experienced political gunslingers.
In the second and last debate between Patty Murray and Dino Rossi before voters pick a U.S. senator and help decide which party controls the Senate, the two candidates ducked and dodged tough questions posed to them.
That’s nothing new in televised debates, where candidates are trying to get their messages out and sometimes act like the questions just get in the way.
Some of the non-answers came when Murray, the Democratic 18-year incumbent, and Rossi, the Republican former state senator who has twice lost campaigns for governor, were asked about how they would solve the problems of mounting federal debt.
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It will be hard to address the problem of debt in the long term without dealing with spending on federal entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. So a question sent in to KOMO 4, which hosted the debate, asked if the candidates would support raising the retirement age for Social Security.
Neither Rossi nor Murray would say if they would support saving money by making seniors wait longer to collect benefits. The age is currently at 66, rising to 67 for some.
Both said they would examine the recommendations of a bipartisan commission on the deficit set up by President Barack Obama, due to come out after the election.
“I think it’s very important that we don’t start making promises one way or another on how we are going to do that,” Murray said. “We all have to make some very courageous decisions when it comes to the end.”
Rossi said: “I’m looking forward to seeing what the bipartisan commission comes up with as well.”
When the candidates had a chance to ask each other questions, Murray asked Rossi how he would pay for extending the portions of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts that affect the highest earners, which she opposes.
Rossi didn’t say. “We need to help small businesses be successful,” he said, pointing out that some of the high earners are actually businesses, not individuals, “and this tax increase that you’re planning for us is going to kill jobs in Washington state.”
He said after the debate that there should be measures to offset the extension of the tax cuts, but said that as with any budget cuts, it’s impossible to detail them, since it involves cutting thousands of budget line items.
And Murray, while calling attention to those tax cuts for wealthier Americans that she said would cost government $1 trillion, didn’t answer when asked after the debate how she would pay for extending the rest of the Bush tax cuts, which would be even more expensive. Both she and Rossi agree the tax cuts for lower and middle earners should be extended, which she said is necessary in a recession.
Murray was also asked if there are elements of Congress’ health care overhaul, which she supported, that she would change. She said “like all bills,” it would need changes, but didn’t say what they were.
Rossi, meanwhile, declined to take a position on whether to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays and lesbians. Murray wants a repeal, but Rossi said he wants to see the results of a Pentagon study of the policy before deciding what to do. He has said the policy seems to be working, and Sunday he said it shouldn’t be left up to judges. A court ruling has put the policy on hold.
The first question set the tone. Their KOMO hosts showed Rossi and Murray a montage of TV ads they and their allies have aired attacking each other, saying it was frustrating voters. They challenged them to depart from the negative campaigning and say what they would do without mentioning their opponents.
They obliged on their first answers, but then had time for rebuttals, and Rossi couldn’t resist saying his opponent didn’t want to extend those tax cuts.
By the next question, on their economic priorities, both were back to slamming each other, with Murray saying Rossi wouldn’t fight for jobs.
Because Rossi opposes the federal stimulus bill, she said: “The people who are working to fix the Howard Hanson Dam right now, he’s going to give them a pink slip.”
Rossi in turn attacked Murray for directing earmarks toward campaign contributors. He argued the other Washington has changed her.
“I really believe Sen. Murray went off to Washington, D.C., with very good intentions,” he said, noting a quote from her first race about her desire to cut the budget. “Boy, things have changed, haven’t they?”