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The Baldwin-Thompson U.S. Senate Debate (9.28.12)

We’ve a competitive U.S. Senate race here in Wisconsin, between former Gov. Tommy Thompson and incumbent Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Recent polls show a Baldwin lead, but everyone in the state sees that this will be a close election on Nov. 6th.

Here’s an assessment of this first debate, on overall impression, format, style, and substance. (The debate begins @ 3:55 on the video, after a dull, seemingly endless introduction from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association.)

Overall impression.

Both of these candidates want to convey the same idea, to a (likely) small number of impressionable voters: that they care about the middle class. Baldwin does this directly, by saying that she does care about them, but that Thompson does not. Thompson, by contrast, does this indirectly, by reminding that he was re-elected many times during which he reduced taxes and boosted employment.

Neither candidate makes a terrible mistake; neither candidate wins a triumph. It’s unlikely that this debate changed anyone’s mind, but it does give voters an impression: Thompson’s irritated. That impression will be effective if voters recall Thompson’s career favorably, with nostalgia. If they feel he has reason to be irritated, then he gains. If not, then in this debate he’s lost nothing, but gained nothing, either.

Tomorrow’s 10.3.12 Marquette Poll may show a closer race, but I doubt that this debate will be the reason.

The state of the race: while Wisconsin twice voted for Scott Walker within two years’ time, the second time by a larger margin than the first, former Gov. Thompson trails Rep. Baldwin.

That Baldwin’s doing as well as she is represents a true problem for Thompson. This debate didn’t change that.

Format.

It’s two candidates, three panelists, and a moderator, with the worst debate stage in all America. It looks like something from a high-school election: big wooden desks, heavy curtains and banners behind them, candidates seated apart from each other, with a moderator between debaters and panelists. Wisconsinites are a plain-spun people, but this stage isn’t plain – it’s stodgy. The desks look like something rummaged from a yard sale. The floor is a studio’s gray linoleum, reminding everyone that it’s a makeshift studio rather than a proper auditorium.

Style.

Baldwin’s dressed conservatively, speaking steadily but without much inflection, and directly into the camera. Her voice has grown more mature over her political career; she once had a discernibly higher pitch. The change has been good for her, and is typical of someone her age (she’s fifty). She’s not a strong speaker, occasionally glancing at her notes, but she’s able to convey emphasis well-enough.

Baldwin does this in two ways: she speaks directly into the camera, and she’s soft-spoken enough that one is almost pulled in, drawn to hear her complete each sentence. If this were an outdoor debate, she’d been at a great disadvantage; on the cooler medium of television, her understated manner of speaking presents no similar problem.

Being seated helps, too: one expects more force from a speaker who’s standing than from one who’s seated. A seated position calls for reduced energy, and a more measured style of speaking.

Thompson’s GOP rivals in the primary questioned his energy and commitment to the race, but he’s easily energetic enough in this debate. Now aged seventy, he’s let his hair go gray, and he looks better now than he did a year ago. He’s a more conversational speaker than Baldwin, and doesn’t need to glance down at notes while he’s speaking.

Thompson speaks assertively (almost angrily) in this debate, and I’d guess it’s by design. He’s down in the polls (at least by a few points), is older, and wants to show fire, vitality. A feistier presentation must have been a campaign tactic.

It’s not a good fit for Thompson, though, and not a good fit in this format. As for the format, being seated makes an angry mien harder to pull off. It would be much better outdoors, and a bit better standing up. He touts his policy successes as governor, but he does so in an edgy way. I don’t know why: he could make up any ground with a subtler, smoother approach.

Thompson doesn’t look at the camera, but rather the panelists, a contrast with Baldwin’s approach. Since he takes a more assertive, almost dismissive tone, he’s better off looking away; as Baldwin takes a less assertive one, she’s better off looking at the camera.

Neither of these candidates speaks of the other except as ‘my opponent.’ (I counted only one exception.) It’s a sign of the coldness between the two, but also their insecurities as candidates. It’s embarrassing that they won’t use their names or titles. Like the cheesy setting, there’s a second-tier approach in one calling the other ‘my opponent.’ All Wisconsin knows that she’s Rep. Tammy Baldwin and that he’s former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Baldwin & Thompson might as well use the same titles that everyone else does.

Substance.

If substance seems so brief, it’s because this was a debate of briefly stated positions. Although both candidates have held office for years, neither showed more than summary of their respective views. One would not easily guess that one was a longstanding legislator, the other a longstanding governor.

Baldwin would extend some existing (Bush Admin) tax cuts, but not all of them; Thompson would preserve them all.

Baldwin would make cuts in military spending and corporate welfare; Thompson favors wider and more comprehensive cuts, mentioning an across-the-board 5% cut.

Thompson touts his prior accomplishments like BadgerCare, and rejects Baldwin’s support for a single-payer solution. Thompson opposes ObamaCare (the Affordable Care Act); Baldwin supports it, and criticizes only a portion of existing health care law that she says benefits drug companies against consumers.

Thompson supports a harder line against Iran, but then no one is favorable to that dictatorship. Baldwin cites her support for Pres. Obama’s approach. Baldwin wants out of Afghanistan; Thompson questions our present policy as tepid and indecisive.

These a battle here over who’s the bigger spender, with Baldwin parrying attacks on her spending record with charges of insiders’ deals and corporate welfare. How undecided voters see these two tacks will determine the race: Thompson’s insistence that she’s an unreconstructed liberal, and Baldwin’s insistence that he’s a deal-making insider.

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