Dent Vs. the Tea Party on Abolishing Department of Education

At the State Theatre debate, Jake Towne stated that he would support abolishing the Department of Education – a position supported by Tea Party activists and 111 Republican incumbents and challengers, including would-be Speaker John Boehner.

To the great disappointment of his conservative base, Charlie Dent declined to support abolishing the Department, but promised to slash its funding if given the opportunity.

But though the base is champing at the bit to end the federal role in education (perhaps they would like universal homeschooling?), cuts in education are among the most hated by the broader electorate – certainly in this Democratic district:

The last time the Republicans made a concerted effort to eliminate the Department of Education in 1995, they ran into a strong public backlash. Polling conducted by Hart Research Associates found that 80 percent of respondents in June 1995 wanted the Department of Education to be maintained, while just 17% wanted it eliminated. With a new New York Times/CBS poll finding that education funding is the last area respondents would like to see spending cuts, it’s no stretch to imagine that a strong majority of Americans still support the Department of Education.

Nevertheless, because there exists widespread support for eliminating the Department of Education in the Republican ranks, the issue could soon come to the forefront in a GOP-controlled Congress. A comprehensive review of the voting records and statements of Republican incumbents and candidates finds that there are 111 GOPers who support shutting down the Department of Education. Though a minority (35 percent) of sitting Republicans are on record supporting elimination, the anti-education bloc will undoubtedly swell in the next Congress due to the 36 new GOP candidates who favor shutting down the Department.

This is likely why Dent tried so hard to keep Jake Towne out of the debates. The conservative policy agenda is deeply unpopular, but with Towne acting as the true right wing standard bearer on fiscal policy, it was inevitable that Dent would have to fess up to some really ugly beliefs to avoid pissing off his core supporters.

The Deficit is a Health Care Problem

Very important NYT article today on Republicans’ failure to identify any specific spending cuts despite using the deficit as a political tool. Indeed, as I wrote after the first 15th district debate, none of the candidates have put forward a serious plan to deal with the deficit, since none of them even mention Medicare/Medicaid.

Credit where it’s due, Jake Towne’s plan to cut defense spending by disciplining missions is highly laudable and would definitely do the most of all three plans, but it is still inadequate for closing the long-term gap.

So before the next debate, I hope reporters and moderators will familiarize themselves with this David Leonhardt column and ask the candidates what they propose to do about Medicare cost-control instead of asking what to do about the deficit:

The huge budget deficits that the country faces in coming decades are, above all, because of Medicare. The program will have to cover growing numbers of baby boomers while health costs are likely to keep going up.

It won’t be possible to pay the bill by cutting other programs. They’re not big enough. Making big cuts to everything but Medicare and Social Security — shrinking the military and other programs to their smallest share of the economy since World War II — might save $200 billion a year by 2035. But by then, annual Medicare spending is projected to grow by more than $1 trillion.

So any deficit strategy needs to focus on Medicare.

In the new issue of the journal Health Affairs, two doctors, both former Medicare officials, have laid out a plan to do so. It would give expensive new treatments three years to prove that they worked better than cheaper treatments, or their reimbursement rates would be cut to that of the cheaper treatments.

I understand that the idea will strike some people as — gasp — rationing. More modest ideas were shouted down during the debate over health reform. But I’d urge anyone who does not like the doctors’ plan to think a bit about how Medicare should be changed. The status quo isn’t really an option.

We are now in a political campaign in which everyone seems to talk about cutting spending without offering many ideas for how to cut spending. When the campaign ends, all that talk won’t balance the budget. Neither will cutting waste, fraud, abuse and foreign aid. Nor will ending the war in Afghanistan and the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

Policies like those can help shrink the deficit, yes. Raising taxes and tweaking Social Security can help even more. But you probably can’t call yourself a fiscal conservative unless you are willing to support changes — that is, cuts — to Medicare.

By contrast, the most serious Republican proposal that’s been put forward is Paul Ryan’s plan, which would turn Medicare into a voucher program, and then allow the value of the vouchers to fall behind health care inflation. Of course it’s true that simply ceasing to pay for Medicare would solve the budget problem, but have fun building support for that approach with old people – especially as seniors make up an increasingly large part of the Republican political coalition.

The next few years are going to see a lot of very important decisions made in this area, so it would be great if moderators used the debates to get the candidates on the record with this stuff, rather than wasting everyone’s time with inane trivia.

The WFMZ Debate

There was not much new ground covered on the policy issues that weren’t argued about at the prior two debates, but the third debate was definitely the most lively one so far. I’ll do a separate post on Dent’s health care comments, since there’s a lot of intellectual garbage to clean up there, and keep this one mostly to observations.

I thought Callahan turned in a much stronger performance at this debate than the others. I always hear that he’s a competitive guy, but I didn’t really see that come out at the other two debates like I did this time. He delivered his remarks authoritatively, didn’t get thrown off by Dent’s interrupting, and drove home the core argument he needed to – that Dent supported the Bush policies that caused the recession, and he is offering more of the same impotent job growth we had under Bush. He sounded confident and seemed much more well-prepared to rebut attacks on his record and the Democrats’ record.

Callahan definitely succeeded in ruffling Dent, who came off as snippy in a few heated exchanges – most notably over the failure to hold banks accountable on bonuses and golden parachutes as a condition of the bailout, and especially over his vote for electricity deregulation. He insisted that it created more choice and competition and would lower costs over time, but even Rob Vaughn had to interject that people’s electric bills are definitely higher as a result of the vote. Dent’s arguments were unconvincing and he got pissy and tried to change the subject to national energy policy instead.

It was remarkable that Dent also went to bat for the Chamber of Commerce and “Business Organizations” so many times. At one point he whined that Barack Obama was being mean to the Chamber of Commerce for flooding our elections with shadowy corporate money to elect Republicans, and absurdly claimed that Obama’s mean rhetoric about Wall Street is actually the reason businesses are not spending. This hardens my view that Congressmen should be required to pass an economics class before taking office.

I think the most notable moment in the debate came when Dent, explaining why he wants to repeal the healthcare bill, listed the 1099 provision as a policy we should repeal, since it would create too much paperwork for small businesses. Callahan pointed out that 1099 repeal came up for a vote, and Dent voted against it. Dent claimed he voted against it because it raised taxes, and the Chamber of Commerce and “business organizations” opposed it. Damn right the Chamber of COmmerce opposed it! Scott Murphy’s 1099 bill ended the tax loophole for corporations who headquarter in the Cayman Islands to get out of paying US taxes. Dent has been complaining about the 1099 provision constantly. After the individual mandate, 1099 repeal has been the centerpiece of his stump speech on health care. But in the end, Dent thought it was more important for multinational corporations to dodge US taxes in the Cayman Islands than it was to help small businesses. What a mensch.

Another favorite moment was when Jake Towne brought up monetary policy and his opposition to the second round of quantitative easing (QE2) the Fed seems likely to undertake. He then tried to get the other candidates to share their views on the Federal Reserve. Dent first tried to say he wasn’t going to get into monetary policy, but then got going and said that he’s opposed to monetizing the debt – printing money to increase inflation and inflate away the debt. But just last week Dent voted to pressure China to let it’s currency appreciate, which would have precisely the same effect as QE2 – lowering the value of the dollar in relation to the renminbi.

The remarkable thing is that Dent then admitted that he does not expect to see inflation any time soon. This is nothing short of an admission that the Republican scaremongering on the deficit is pure crap. If the stimulus spending isn’t creating inflation – which it isn’t, because there is so much excess capacity, and such a large demand for high quality assets like Treasury bonds – then the short-term debt is not an issue.

I thought Jake Towne really held his own despite being a less-experienced politician. I was impressed with his public speaking skills at both debates, but especially this one. He didn’t get as much time to talk as the other two candidates, but I think that’s partly because Rob Vaughn was accommodating about letting the candidates ramble over into issues they wanted to talk about. Jake’s monetary policy question was good, and I also thought he did a good job of representing the real conservative base position on Social Security, calling it a Ponzi scheme that should be phased out. Hopefully conservative activists are taking note that Dent is too scared to admit he even supports private retirement accounts, let alone privatization or a full-on phaseout. Towne also proposed an income tax holiday, which I imagine would be a big hit with Tea Party activists. Jake said at the previous debate that he supports eliminating the income tax. Both of the major party candidates avoided engaging with some of these more exotic positions.

15th District Debate: Loose Ends

I doubt I’m going to get around to doing any more debate posts, but I have a few stray thoughts about the remaining questions that I wanted to blog.

  • On the defense budget question, both major party candidates talked about being more discerning with purchases in the appropriations process, but Jake Towne was the only one to say that there’s only so much you can do on that front without disciplining missions and ending our presence in some non-essential countries. He’s absolutely right. US troops are currently stationed in a lot of places where it’s nice to have them, but not critical to our current conflicts or central to our security needs. That’s how you get real savings. We can’t, and shouldn’t, be everywhere.
  • Answering one of the questions about jobs, Charlie Dent mentioned an idea he supports for a carryback capital gains tax credit that he got from Martin Feldstein, the chairman of the CEA under Ronald Reagan, deficit hawk, and an unrepetant supply-sider. But despite his conservative politics, Feldstein has been a loud proponent of countercyclical deficit spending to stimulate the economy since before the 2008 election, and he is still pushing for more deficit spending to stimulate the economy today. Dent is only paying selective attention to economists who confirm his own ignorant views. If he was actually listening to Feldstein, he’d be calling for more stimulus spending. Instead he’s just cherrypicking proposals that jive with his own incorrect diagnosis of the Lehigh Valley’s economy.

Towne and the Zombies

Jake Towne is out with his first campaign video, in which he responds to some of the charges thrown at him by the two major party campaigns:

"Callahan Ducks Chamber of Commerce Debate"


Down in the polls, Callahan has supposedly clamored for more debate time, but he ducked a surprisingly good debate sponsored by the local tea party this Spring. Now, he’s running from a local debate on jobs and the economy at the very time that Charlie Dent is being endorsed by one of the nation’s leading small business organizations.

On Friday, John Callahan backed out of an Oct. 18 debate with Congressman Dent hosted by the Nazareth/Bath Area, Whitehall Area and Slate Belt Chambers of Commerce. Maybe he’s afraid that someone will question him about his own “simple jobs plan,” something he was unable to explain at the Lafayette debate.

As Bernie’s own post on the Tea Party debate illustrates, the only “Democrat” in attendance was oddball Senate Dem primary candidate Joe Vodvarka. As you can see from his statement of principles, also available in Bernie’s post, Vodvarka is a pretty run-of-the-mill rightwinger. As we saw today in the new NBC/WSJ poll, the tea party is just the rump conservative base, and hasn’t actually brought in many new people:

“These are essentially conservative Republicans who are very ticked-off people,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter Hart…

Mr. McInturff said the tea-party movement had not necessarily drawn new people into the GOP. Rather, he said, “a substantial chunk of the Republican Party is rebranding themselves.”

This would be like if I faulted Charlie Dent for declining a debate hosted by Organizing for America, with only Democratic primary candidates, targeted at Democratic primary voters. It is obvious that this was an intra-right debate, hosted by conservative Bobby Gunther Walsh, aimed at conservatives and Republican primary voters, because it was before the Republican primary.

As for the October 18th debate, “backed out” implies that the Callahan campaign agreed to the debate, and then cancelled, which is simply false. The campaign has a scheduling conflict on the 18th.

The idea that Charlie Dent is the candidate who has been for more debates all along is ridiculous. First Dent whined about debating Jake Towne, then he refused to debate at Northampton Community College and straight up dropped off the debate at DeSales late on a Friday (and the newspapers never reported on it), and worst of all, he pulled strings behind the scenes to get the first debate chopped in half.

So why does Charlie Dent want this debate so much, but not the others?

I’ve heard from multiple sources now that Dent has been whining to Tony Ianelli that the Chamber hasn’t been out there shilling for him. So the Dent campaign found somebody who will shill for him – Frank DeRosa, Director of the Nazareth Chamber of Commerce, and known Republican partisan, who will coincidentally be the only moderator.

Dent knows his jobs record doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, so besides the obligatory news organization debates, he’s only agreeing to debate in tightly controlled settings stacked with Republicans. He thinks he has better chances of getting a gotcha moment from Callahan here and that’s why he’s going to the trouble.

Despite all the previous wrangling to avoid debates or change the rules, Dent has puzzingly offered to clear his schedule for just this one debate. If time isn’t an issue for the Nazareth Chamber debate, then why doesn’t he also have time for the NCC and DeSales debates?


Failed primary challenger Mat Benol has managed to claw his way out from underneath his family to endorse Charlie Dent, securing approximately zero new votes for the incumbent.

I think the right question to ask is, why are we hearing about this right now?  It seems like there would be no reason to put this out if all was well on Charlie Dent’s right flank. Indeed, Benol got 17% of the vote in the primary without campaigning or raising money at all, so it would be silly to expect 100% of these voters to turn out for Dent in November.

The Dent campaign must be very worried about losing base voters to Jake Towne, whose laissez-faire economic views are much more in line with what the conservative base believes.