Peters vs. Bilbray: The Vacuum Debates

Scott Peters and Brian Bilbray debate on NBC San Diego’s “Politically Speaking”

San Diego’s 52nd Congressional District candidates square off, but few seem to have noticed.

Did you happen to catch the debates between Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray and Democratic challenger Scott Peters this past week?  No?  You’re not alone.  My guess is that not too many people knew they were happening.  I certainly didn’t, and I’m paying attention; a lot more than the average voter, I would suppose.

The last I had heard was that Peters was doing everything possible to try and goad his opponent into a get-together.  Back in August, Bilbray issued a challenge to Peters to a series of four debates.  The Peters campaign replied that “Mr. Bilbray has issued a challenge to debates we agreed to weeks ago.”  The Peters camp took a very Pat Hill-like “anytime, anywhere” stance, but still could not get anything on the schedule.  According a Peters spokesperson, every time a date was proposed, Bilbray claimed a conflict.  (For those who don’t know, Pat Hill is the former Fresno St. University football coach who constantly whined about his program’s inability to get a game against the big boys.  “We’ll play anyone, anywhere” became Fresno State’s unofficial motto.)

Then, late last month, the Bilbray camp tried to make hay out of a debate that was supposed to happen live on the air at 760 KFMB radio, a debate that Peters did not show up for.  After issuing a press release accusing Peters of ducking the debate, emails were produced between the show’s host and the campaign that acknowledged that the show never contacted the Peters camp about arranging any such debate.  The email from KFMB’s Michael Slater reads, in part:

The Bilbray team came to us to schedule a debate.  I asked them to pick a date, and I assumed (absolutely my fault) that they were working with your team for the debate.  I’m very sorry for the confusion.

There were other opportunities.  Last month, The Voice of San Diego held it’s Politifest, and asked Peters and Bilbray to participate in a debate during the event.  Bilbray claimed he couldn’t because he had to be back in Washington on Congressional business.  Congress was in recess, though.  There was also a potential debate at KPBS that turned into a series of interviews—with both candidates in attendance but participating separately.  Mr. Bilbray apparently could agree to do two separate interviews, one for radio and another taped for television, but could not debate instead.  An email sent to the Bilbray campaign has not yet been answered.

Well, turns out that last week the two candidates did finally get together for two debates:  One with the UT-TV crew at the UT San Diego headquarters, and another as a part of the NBC San Diego program “Politically Speaking,” hosted by KNSD’s Gene Cubbison.

Although the full video for the KNSD debate has not yet been posted, the clips that are available are informative and give a great overview of the differences between the two candidates.  And some interesting things came out of both debates.

One of the biggest issues with the largest local economic effect that was discussed was defense spending:  Specifically, the defense cuts that will come with the sequestration deal struck between the president and Congress late last year.

Refresher:  The sequestration agreement was a part of the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and avoid the U.S. government defaulting on its loans for the first time in history.  Congressional Republicans were bound and determined to see the country not just fall, but bound off of that fiscal cliff.  As a part of the deal, the so-called “Supercommittee” was formed that consisted of an equal number of members from each party from each chamber of Congress.

They were supposed to negotiate a long term deal on the debt ceiling, taxes, and spending.  If they couldn’t reach a deal, a pre-arranged sequestration agreement that contained $1.2 trillion in spending cuts; cuts to domestic programs that would be so onerous to Democrats, and over $500 billion in cuts to defense spending that is so extreme and far beyond what the Department of Defense could work with and so onerous to Republicans the theory was that with that hanging over the Supercommittee’s head, there’s no way they wouldn’t find a way to work out their differences.

Newsflash:  The two sides could not come anywhere close to working out their differences.  And now, at the end of the  year we’re facing the prospect of massive cuts to domestic programs and defense, and the end of the Bush tax cuts for everyone, not just the wealthiest among us.  Here in San Diego, according to the candidates during the debate, those defense spending cuts could cost us 30,000 jobs locally.

Mr. Bilbray didn’t seem to understand what all the hubbub was about.  It was, after all, a bipartisan deal that was signed by the president.  “Sequestering was basically the agreement that the President put together with the Speaker,” Bilbray said during the debate on NBC San Diego.  “It was one of the few agreements that we saw there, and it actually was a tough decision to make.  Thos of us that were in the middle of the spectrum in Washington agreed that this wasn’t the best answer, but it was the best one available.  Extremists voted against it.  So we did move forward to finally force Congress to work together.”  Only they didn’t work together at all.

“We face the loss of 30,000 jobs just in the defense sector in our county and the average tax increase of $3,500 per family,” Peters responded.  “That is not working.  When someone in Congress tells you that’s a solution, that’s when we have to make a change.”  The sequestration deal came from Congress, he said during the UT-TV debate, and it was a result of a Congress that doesn’t work.

“One of the main reasons for this gridlock is that my opponent has signed a pledge never to raise taxes on anybody, no matter millionaire, billionaire; never to decrease subsidies on oil companies that have never been more profitable.  That’s why there’s gridlock.  That’s why when President Obama offered three spending cuts for one revenue increase, the Republicans said no.”

On Medicare, Bilbray repeatedly touted himself as a moderate, as someone who was looking to “protect” the Medicare benefit.  But he could not run away from his votes in Congress on both iterations of the Ryan Budget that would end the Medicare defined benefit for those under 55, instead turning it into a voucher program.  And he repeatedly admonished Peters for supporting Obamacare, which he said cuts $716 billion from current Medicare benefits, which is patently false.

When asked by the moderator, the UT’s Michael Smolens, whether the Ryan plan did the same (it does, but puts the money into “deficit reduction” rather than other healthcare programs), Bilbray talked around the question.  And he noted that the Ryan plan doesn’t make any changes to Medicare services for 10 years, openly admitting that he supports the Ryan voucher plan.

Peters then noted that the Ryan plan will cost seniors $6,400 per year more out of pocket for their health care, and $680 more per year for prescription drugs if Obamacare is repealed.

Peters also took exception to the characterization of his position on changes to Medicare.  Bilbray repeatedly pilloried Peters for an interview he gave with KUSI over a year ago where he said he supports reducing spending on Medicare and Social Security.  “You don’t have to cut the benefits, you have to preserve the benefits,” Peters told Smolens.  “You have to cut the costs.  For instance, we don’t negotiate the cost of prescription drugs now, whereas your private health plan would do that.”

“We also know that there’s a lot of overbilling that we need to take care of,” he continued.  “Those are cuts, but those are not cuts to benefits.”  He also pointed to savings that could be achieved via electronic record keeping and through preventive care rather than waiting until someone is sick and the treatment is far more expensive.

On abortion rights, Peters reiterated that he was “strongly pro-choice.”

“I believe the government should not be involved in making medical decisions for women.  Whether you’re a libertarian or not, I just don’t think that’s an appropriate role for government,”  Peters said, mentioning that he has been endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and that his wife is on the board of the local Planned Parenthood.  “Brian Bilbray voted to defund Planned Parenthood.  I don’t think he’s been standing up for women’s choice and their ability to make those decisions.”

Bilbray, for his part, was unclear as to whether he would protect a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.  “Government should not interject itself either legally or financially,” he said.

The most bizarre moment of the UT-TV debate came on the issue of same sex marriage.  Peters supports it, saying “it’s the right thing to do.”

“My constituency says that same sex marriage is an issue that does nothing but divert attention from the deficit and the debt,” Bilbray said.  He said he supports domestic partnerships, but then came this bizarre, rambling monologue:

What really concerns me about how this debate is going is Americans are actually discussing a concept that we have to go to the government to get a license for what people claim is a right.  That is a scary place for us to go regardless of how you feel about same sex marriage.  The entire premise that government can be in a position to where if something’s a right you have to go get a license from them for the right to exercise that right.  I think we’re going on a ground that’s very dangerous, not just about this issue but a lot of issues between the individual and our government.

“Marriage wasn’t a right.  It has been arranged and controlled by the government” he continued, going on to say that marriage was about protecting children.

The obvious question, then, needs to be asked:  What about the government’s involvement in establishing civil rights in the 60’s?  What about the federal government stepping in to end the practice in some states of prohibiting interracial marriage, criminalizing it?  What about the government guaranteeing the right to vote?  Equal pay for equal work?  Women’s equality?  Is it Mr. Bilbray’s contention that the federal government has no place in guaranteeing those rights?  Gay rights is this generation’s civil rights movement, and that to a very large extent includes gay marriage.

On the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Mr. Bilbray insisted that “the repeal was a political action taken during a war.”

“I think it is something we should talk about once we are out of harm’s way.”  This despite the success of the repeal.

The testiest exchange came on immigration, where Bilbray continued his hard line stance.  “You don’t understand.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  You’re in way over your head when it comes to these issues,” Bilbray shot at Peters.

“And you have it under control, it sounds like,” Peters shot back.

Watch for yourself and decide:

The UT-TV debate can be accessed via this link.  Sorry, the video was not embeddable.

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Andy Cohen

Andy spent 15 years working in the highest levels of the San Diego professional sports world, including both the Padres and the Chargers. He began his foray into writing while a volunteer for Francine Busby's 2010 Congressional campaign, eventually becoming a contributor to the now defunct SDNN. He has reported on local and national politics for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press. When not reporting news and events, he offers political and policy commentary from a liberal perspective, occasionally turning back to his sports roots. While he does not hide his more liberal political bent, Andy always strives for fairness in the telling of a story.