The Cook Political Report gives Florida’s 22nd district a D+1 rating, meaning that Democrats have a slight advantage. But the crowd at Tuesday’s debate between tea party favorite Allen West and Democratic incumbent Ron Klein would probably have measured an R+5.
Boisterous audience members cheered for both candidates at points, but several times the crowd interrupted Klein, and he was forced to wait for silence. In three weeks, we’ll find out whether the crowd’s enthusiasm for West was a reflection simply of debate attendance or whether it was a foreshadowing.
The race has been characterized by Klein’s attempts to paint West as an extremist using video from a political rally in which West says, “I’m just honored to be here today with all of my fellow right-wing extremists,” and from a speech in which he implored tea party attendees, “to fix your bayonet and to charge into the ranks.”
“These aren’t rhetorical flourishes. These are real statements,” Klein told debate attendees, adding later that, “The public right now is frustrated because they see the battling — watch MSNBC or Fox, you see both sides of the equation. It’s wrong.”
West defended the former comment as tongue-in-cheek, and the latter comment as fitting for the Revolutionary theme of the rally at which he was speaking. He said his statements simply show, “a conviction to this great constitutional republic, to God, to country, to family and community. And if being that way turns me as an extremist, then I guess I am guilty of being an extremist, because I am extremely devoted to this great country.”
It’s that kind of rhetoric which has made West a favorite of the tea party crowd, and he hasn’t back off the message. He told the debate audience that he would “hold John Boehner’s feet to the fire” if elected, and pointed to Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac as a problem both parties helped to create — leading to the financial crisis.
“The genesis of it was a federal government that all of a sudden decided that owing a home was a right and not a privilege,” West said. “You want to talk about bipartisanship? That was a Republican and a Democrat issue, because they lost focus, they lost their eye on the ball. They were more concerned about minority home ownership than understanding the standards and the economic principles that they violated.”
At points, the debate turned to economic theory. West said that 47 percent of Americans do not pay income taxes, and argued for replacing the current progressive tax rates with a flat tax. He also characterized bailout capitalism as a Little League game, “where every kid gets a trophy,” leading to a continued cycle of failure.
Klein defended economic stimulus as a way out of the crisis.
“I think my biggest disagreement with Mr. West is the notion of, ‘tax cuts solve every problem,’” Klein said. “I talk to a lot of businesses that say, ‘if you give me a couple thousand dollars, I’m not going to have some big hiring spree. I’m only going to hire when customers come through.’ … That’s the bottom line, that’s what I hear over and over again, and that’s what we have to do. You have to create the demand, you have to create confidence in the economy.”
On health care reform, West praised the elimination of preexisting conditions, but attacked the constitutionality of the individual mandate, advocated for health savings accounts, and suggested that the tax on tanning is racist. “West is not going to a tanning booth,” he joked.
Klein said he is open to improvements but defended President Obama’s reform plan as a good start. “Medicare wasn’t born in a day either,” he said.
The two agreed on support for Israel, but West’s rhetoric was the strongest, including a suggestion that the U.S. be prepared to take “hard action” against Iran. “I do not want to see another Neville Chamberlain moment happen on my watch,” West said.
Despite the moderator’s attempts to limit applause until after the event, the crowd threw out cheers and jeers for both candidates. None, though, were louder than those that came in West’s defense.
Klein attacked West for residing outside the boundaries of the 22nd district, and for moving to Florida only seven years ago.
“Well one thing is absolutely certain,” West said to thunderous applause. “I can’t apologize for the fact that I was off 22 years serving in the military.”
West fired back later in the debate about the campaign tactics used against him, such as a mailer sent to voters that included his Social Security number.
“I don’t apologize for the things that I’ve said. And I don’t regret the things that I’ve said. But let me tell you what I do regret: I do regret that my Social Security number, my wife’s employment identification number, was put into the public domain by the Florida Democrat Party in conjunction with Ron Klein,” West said. “I don’t accept their backhand apology. I don’t accept the fact that the Florida Democrat Party has a tracker that follows me around 24/7 to any event that I have, to include going into churches.”
Pundits may disagree on the outcome of the debate, but the opinion of the crowd was clear. After closing statements, audience members chanted, “Go West!” until the grinning colonel raised a finger to his lips in a plea for quiet.
If everything goes as West hopes, they’ll be much harder to calm on Nov. 2.