Friday, August 20, 2010

Being a Congressman is about character

I said in my last post that there's nothing more American than capitalism. Well, that's why I don't like to use superlatives. There is something more American, and that's patriotism; and one of the most patriotic things you can do is involve yourself in elections.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a candidate forum with the three men running to represent my district in the House of Representatives for the next two years: the incumbent, Democrat Glenn Nye, the Republican candidate Scott Rigell, and the independent challenger Kenny Golden. I know many people don't see much value in actually attending these events. After all, politics can get ugly, they can get dirty, and if you're really interested in what they're saying, then you can always get a transcript of the debate (which is why I won't be posting the transcript, myself; those who are interested will be able to find one easily enough).

What I will post is the impressions I got of the candidates as I watched and listened to them. That's the value of attending these forums, of going to townhalls and campaign events; as scripted as they are, and as practiced and rehearsed as the speeches and answers the candidates give may be, you have a much greater chance of learning about their character by seeing them in person than you can by simply reading about them. And last night, I feel I learned quite a bit about the three candidates.

Glenn Nye was on defense for much of the night, but he held his own fairly well against his two conservative opponents. Golden had once challenged Rigell for the GOP nomination, but became an independent before the primary. They both seemed to enjoy what one of them called "Gang Up On Glenn Night", taking the opportunity to hammer Nye for his vote on last year's controversial stimulus bill and for waiting until virtually the last minute to vote no on this year's health insurance reform. Nye responded by pointing out that hundreds of pages had been added to the health bill in the final days before the vote and he had taken the time to read them before deciding which way to vote. Rigell had another theory: that Nye had waited until enough Democrats were prepared to vote yes before he decided to vote no.

Rigell has made several statements lately to the effect that Nye is his only serious obstacle to being elected, not feeling that Golden has enough support to overcome the two major party candidates. As such, Rigell seemed all too eager to go on the attack against the Congressman, hitting him on nearly every question, even as he tried to outline his own proposals for how Congress and the country should move forward. At times, it seemed as if he took the Congressman's votes personally. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for a citizen to do, since they do affect us personally; but it's not always the best route for a candidate to take.

Golden, while rarely missing a chance to criticize Nye's record, of course also took the occasional shot at Rigell, pointing out that neither candidate had as long of a record in public service as his own and that both would be forced to look through "the lens" of their own political party. He struck a populous tone throughout the evening, calling for the FairTax, an "all of the above" energy policy, and for securing the border against illegal immigrants (a position that all three candidates shared). Though he may personally believe in each of these policies, the rhetoric felt a little forced coming through his lips (which only means he's not that much of a public speaker, of course, and doesn't say much about his abilities).

The differences between the candidates was perhaps most apparent in their positions on the health insurance reform law (Obamacare). While all three oppose it, they each had different proposals for how to abolish or amend it. Golden, the populist independent, supported immediate repeal of the law. Rigell, the pragmatic if passionate businessman, points out that a repeal would likely face a presidential veto. He instead supports the idea of the next Congress simply refusing to fund the initiatives in Obamacare, reminding voters that the Legislative Branch controls the budget. Nye, showing a little more understanding of the process than the others due to his time in the House, called for use of the amendment process, which he has already used successfully to amend both Obamacare and other issues. He pledged to continue to use it in the future, particularly with regards to the mandates in Obamacare.

I was offered stickers and information on each of the candidates before the debate began, and I told the people giving them to me that I would wait until after the debate before wearing anyone's sticker. While there are things I admire about each candidate, such as Golden's record, Nye's bipartisanship, and Rigell's fierce advocacy of the free market, I just couldn't bring myself to pledge my support to anyone in advance. Even now, after watching them debate and seeing them interact with each other and the audience, I can't quite decide. Characterwise, I felt Nye won the night, since he never had an unkind or even critical word to say about either of his opponents and had instead a series of measured, policy-based answers to each question. Golden and Rigell, though, while actually agreeing with much of Nye had to say, still "ganged up" on him when they could.

Yes, a candidate is supposed to draw differences between himself and his opponent. After all, if you think he's doing a good job, then why run against him? But I've seen plenty of successful campaigns, including Bob McDonnell's campaign for governor last year, that employed virtually no negativity at all. While I appreciate the zeal Rigell and Golden displayed for their positions, I was more impressed by Nye's restraint. After all, there are plenty of things he could have used to hammer both of them, as well.

There are still two whole months before the election. I'll keep my eyes open for chances to see the candidates in action (and in person) again. I hope you all do the same, wherever you are and whoever your candidates happen to be.

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