After stumbling a bit in his first ever political debate last Friday, GOP Senate hopeful Ron Johnson put in an impressive performance tonight. It was a stunning improvement actually. He was energetic without seeming anxious, very well-prepared and deliberate in his speech — he looked like a politician ready to go to Washington. Sen. Feingold stuck to his guns and once again proved himself an experienced debater, even if most Wisconsin voters have long soured on the substance of his message. The debate had a more open format and this played to Johnson’s advantage. That is, he didn’t try to rush his answers and made his points clearly and concisely during the follow ups to the initial questions.
Perhaps the debate’s most compelling exchanges centered on freedom of expression. When Johnson asked Feingold why he did not vote to condemn MoveOn.org’s “General Betray Us” ad, Feingold cried “free speech,” arguing that the Senate has better things to do than pass meaningless resolutions. Several minutes later, Feingold — echoing a tactic that many embattled Democrats are using lately — accused Johnson of benefiting from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, what Feingold called “one of the worst decisions in the history” of the court. He called on Johnson to ask third party groups spending on his behalf to stop. Johnson, referencing Feingold’s earlier defense (and drawing laughter), claimed that these groups also “have a right to free speech.” This turned into a bit of a testy back-and-forth with neither candidate backing down. Johnson missed a golden opportunity, however, to point out the almost $600,000 that MoveOn.org has recently raised on Feingold’s behalf, and to ask him if they should stop their activity as well. Count on hearing about it in the next debate.
Johnson scored big on a counter to one of Feingold’s standard lamentations — ‘woe is me, the lonely independent voice in a Congress of partisans,’ etc. — by bringing up Feingold’s (decisive) votes on the stimulus package and health-care reform, two highly partisan efforts. Feingold responded that the stimulus wasn’t partisan because the two Maine Republicans voted for it, and this seemed to cause a bit of a commotion in the crowd and considerable laughter, as Johnson fittingly threw a look of disbelief in Feingold’s direction. This was an absolute low point for Feingold and exposed his biggest weak point. He looked more than ever like a vulnerable incumbent fighting a losing battle.
Overall, many of the issues discussed were the same and both candidates made many of the same points they did last week. Johnson continued to play up his business experience (and lack of political experience or ambition) as an asset that he could bring to Washington to help create jobs and grow the economy. He was far more effective in relaying that message tonight — “I know how to create jobs and compete in the global economy because I do it every day.” — while Feingold attempted to cast Johnson as the face of “big business” that cares nothing about the little guy. This dynamic came to a head when one of the panelists asked about Johnson’s outspoken admiration for Ayn Rand and in particular her work “Atlas Shrugged.” Johnson very articulately described how the book ought to serve as a warning about what can happen when too many members of society become reliant on too few producers, while Feingold played the populist card and accused Johnson of thinking producers are “better than the rest of us.”
In fact, Feingold came off as whiny throughout. Though not quite as condescending as President Obama in his “you would think they would be thanking us” remarks, Feingold kept demanding credit and appreciation for all the “good things” provided in the stimulus and the health-care bill. He persisted in his defense of Obamacare, saying “I want what I voted for, I want this bill,” and here came off like a captain resigned to go down with his ship. He tried to break down the individual provisions of the bill, some of which are popular on their own, as that is really the only approach he can possibly take at this point. Johnson reiterated his pledge to repeal the bill, a position supported by a majority of Wisconsin voters.
I wrote here last week that if Johnson could simply communicate his message more clearly, show less nerves and speak deliberately, he could really open up the race in his favor. I think he did that tonight. He proved himself against an experienced politician, countered effectively and made Feingold look like every bit the out of touch incumbent on several occasions. I expect he will build on this success in the next (and final) debate later this month.
No matter what the polls may say, I refuse to write Feingold off just yet. But after watching Johnson’s performance tonight, it’s clear that — if elected — he will be a force to be reckoned with in the Senate. And Democrats aren’t the only ones who should be taking notice.