By Eric Geller
Tuesdays congressional debate between Congressman Bob Gibbs (R) and challenger Joyce Healy-Abrams (D) in Rosse Hall displayed in microcosm the two philosophies of governance that have dominated the national political discourse in the last few weeks. The two candidates for Ohios 7th Congressional District presented competing visions of deficit reduction, entitlement reform and foreign policy in the debate, which was hosted by Kenyons Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) .
Gibbs and Healy-Abrams responded to questions from a three-person panel that consisted of CSADs Director Tom Karako, Washington Bureau Chief for The Columbus Dispatch Jack Torry and Managing Editor of The Mount Vernon News Samantha Scoles. The event was well attended, with a crowd of approximately 300 people.
From the start of the debate, it was obvious both candidates wanted to stress their small business experience. Gibbs, who founded Hidden Hollow Farms and led the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, cited that combined experience as a launching point for his political career.
Healy-Abrams touted her experience in the private sector she ran a small business for 10 years and told the audience, Im not a career politician, Im a businesswoman.
Gibbs opened by saying that We can do better than this. Were on the wrong path. This cant be the new normal. Healy-Abrams echoed Gibbs charge that Congress is broken, adding that she was running for office to contribute to a bipartisan effort to balance the federal budget. I am the only true fiscal conservative standing here before you tonight, she said, criticizing Gibbs for siding with billionaires and voting with his party 97 percent of the time during his first term.
Given the polarization both candidates referred to, the first question predictably concerned bipartisanship and working across the aisle. Healy-Abrams said there are still issues on which there is bipartisan agreement, such as foreign affairs and relations with Israel, but that we have two different ideological philosophies right now in Congress relating to budgetary solutions. She cited the anti-tax pledge championed by conservative activist Grover Norquist, which Gibbs has signed. By signing the pledge, youre tying your hands, she told him and the crowd. When you draw that line in the sand, you cannot negotiate.
Gibbs was quick to point out that the House of Representatives was not the problem. The House, he said, has passed many bills to improve the U.S. business climate, a number of them with strong bipartisan support. Instead, he suggested the Senate held up the process.
The Senate is not willing to work with us, he said. The House cant negotiate with itself, and weve put things out there.
While Healy-Abrams was adamant that there is a give and a take with respect to budget-balancing measures, she said increasing taxes on the wealthy should not be kept off the table. Gibbs countered that Governor Mitt Romneys plan to lower tax rates and cap deductions (the latter allowing families and individuals to choose which deductions to take advantage of) was the responsible approach. Raising taxes is the worst thing to do, he said, claiming this would actually bring in less revenue.
The candidates also discussed the controversial issues of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Healy-Abrams criticized Gibbs for wanting to privatize and change Medicare as we know it. Gibbs, in response, praised vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryans proposed budget, which would give seniors a fixed amount of money to spend on whatever health care plan they wanted. Gibbs argued this practice would reduce costs and improve the quality of care.
Gibbs and Healy-Abrams also disagreed on Obamacare. Though Healy-Abrams supports many provisions of the law, including the ban on insurers rejecting people because of pre-existing conditions, she said it didnt do enough for small businesses, especially those with fewer than 50 employees. But, this is the law of the land, she said, citing the Supreme Courts decision upholding the laws constitutionality.
Gibbs responded, Yeah, its the law of the land. Right now. He criticized the way the law was passed and expressed his desire to see it repealed, calling the level of government involvement in the healthcare market un-American.
Other social issues also came up at the debate, including funding for Planned Parenthood. Gibbs cited the Constitution, saying one of the unalienable rights with which Americans are endowed by their Creator is life (although this phrase is actually found in the Declaration of Independence). He said he wanted to do everything possible to save the lives of unborn children.
Healy-Abrams was quick to respond. I hate to tell you, Mr. Gibbs, but abortion isnt what [Planned Parenthood does] the majority of the time. She then cited other health services Planned Parenthood provides, especially to lower-income families. For Healy-Abrams, ultimately the decision to terminate pregnancy is not the decision of the federal government.
With Ohio at the center of an oil and gas drilling boom, the candidates then discussed how to balance job and energy creation needs with environmental concerns, especially regarding water usage. We have to be very, very careful with the growth of this industry, Healy-Abrams said. She stressed the importance of state oversight. She also expressed worries about the large amounts of water needed to release underground gas as part of the drilling or fracking procedure, saying recycling the water was imperative.
In response, Gibbs cited a bill he co-sponsored in the Ohio Senate to toughen regulations on drilling, citing the importance of putting in place the right regulatory and oversight structures.
The most interesting exchange of the night came at the end of the candidates responses to a question about the auto bailout. Healy-Abrams said she supported the bailout, adding, This needed to be done, and look at the [positive] effects of it.
In contrast, Gibbs said the bailout was mismanaged and that the Obama administration should have allowed the auto companies to enter reorganization bankruptcy and then evaluated their condition afterward.
When the congressman finished speaking, Healy-Abrams jumped in and asked, Is that what we should have done to the banks and financial institutions as well? Gibbs, unsure of whether the moderators would allow an unplanned response, remained silent, while the audience laughed at the awkward moment.
During their concluding statements, Healy-Abrams and Gibbs stressed the importance of the election cycle, the differences between their philosophies of governance and the multi-point plans they each had to fix the economy. We have two very different visions, Healy-Abrams said. That much, at least, was clear to everyone watching the debate.