Rick and Bob Meet the Pumpkinhead
"Meet the Press" began its fall series of Senate debates today with what many consider The Big One, in my native state of Pennsylvania: incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum versus Democratic challenger Bob Casey. As you've probably heard, Casey has led this race for more than a year, though the size of his margin is in question: some polls have his lead down to six points, after a Santorum ad blitz over the summer, while others still have Casey leading by as much as 18.
I described this race to a friend as similar to watching the sports team you hate the most being challenged by a team to which you're largely indifferent. Casey's social conservatism--he's anti-abortion and tepid at best on gay rights and other issues--doesn't bother me that much, and his economic populist positions and closeness to labor are appealing. But he's bland and careerist--he's run for four offices in six years--and doesn't come across as particularly thoughtful or passionate. Santorum, of course, is the darling of the radical right: he's been deeply involved in the K Street Project, and his reactionary views on gays, women, and social organization in general have led opponents to describe him as "one of the finest minds of the 13th century." And he's voted with Bush upwards of 95 percent of the time in every year since Bush took office.
Today's debate probably didn't change any minds. (The video and transcript should both be available at the link above.) Santorum came across as what he is: a dogmatic Bush follower who's got nothing to offer on the war and on the "broader struggle" against "Islamic fascism" but simplistic thinking and appeals to the reptile brain. He called Bush "a terrific president," which isn't going to play well in PA, nor will his flimflammery on Social Security of the issue of his residency.
Casey was underwhelming but seemed competent. He gently poked holes in some of Santorum's wilder ravings, though he also missed the opportunity to really highlight the contradictions and essential incoherence of the Republican position: "we're in Iraq and must win there, but even though it's going badly we were right to go in and the mistakes can't be blamed on us, and besides the scary dark men are coming and want to kill us all, and even though the world is more dangerous now than in 2001 Bush has done everything right..."
But Casey's not that candidate. What did disappoint me was that he didn't at all hit Santorum on the three issues where Casey can make a positive case that will appeal to voters: economic populism, Republican corruption, and the poisonous and divisive culture wars in which Santorum has played such a notable role. In part, that was a result of how Tim Russert framed the debate, and what questions were and weren't asked.
I hope, however, that the Casey people pick this up later in the campaign. While it's possible that Casey will win anyway because of just how much people dislike Santorum and are generally dissatisfied, it obviously would be preferable for him to make some kind of positive argument that would get people energized.
Bottom line: Casey was the beneficiary of low expectations in this debate, and he met them. I doubt the polls move much either way.