It was their only debate of the election season: Democrat Heather Beaven of Flagler Beach and Republican Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, two young military veterans—she’s a non-profit CEO, he’s a trial lawyer—vying to be the first representative of the newly drawn Congressional District 6, which includes all of Flagler County.
They faced off for 55 minutes Wednesday evening before some 300 to 350 people at at DeLand High School, answering just eight questions from moderator Pat Rice, the editor at the News-Journal, which sponsored the debate with Stetson University’s Center for Community Engagement.
The debate was as rich in generalities and clichés as it was light on substance, with both candidates repeating stump-speech stock phrases used by Democrats and Republicans across the country. The candidates were clearer about what they’re against than what they’re for: DeSantis is against anything to do with Barack Obama, “regulations” and “Washington bureaucrats.” Beaven is against most things to do with DeSantis. But on tax policy, on the debt, on job creation, health care and bi-partisanship, neither—with rare exceptions—could provide specifics about what they stood for, or how they’d fix the problems they kept outlining.
And what they were very good at was mis-characterizing each other, and stating outright and long-discredited lies.
They knew they would not be held to account, or even face follow-up questions by the markedly deferential Rice. They took full advantage, starting with Beaven’s opening remarks. She lambasted DeSantis for claiming that Pell grants “are unconstitutional,” a position DeSantis never took. When he corrected her on the fact later, Beaven snarkily replied: “His book is for sale too, you can read it, and find where I got my quotes. Just saying.” She was referring to Dreams from Our Founding fathers, DeSantis’s vanity-press critique of the “age of Obama.” Except that DeSantis never once mentions pell grants in the book, and only once mentions, in passing, “the federalization of student loans.”
Later, when asked about what they would do about improving bi-partisanship in Washington, Beaven said: “I don’t think you will hear me ever say with disdain the word ‘Republican,’ or the word ‘conservative.’ My opponent can’t say the same thing. And I think if you start with that, if you campaign with disdain about half your district, you can’t go to Washington and make it better.”
DeSantis fired back: “I was endorsed in this race by Jeb Bush, former governor, and when I was, Mrs. Beaven put out a press release lambasting Jeb Bush, and so she’s saying that she doesn’t call people names or do anything like that. I think the experience has been a little different.”
“I Was Blasting You”
“I wasn’t basting Jeb Bush,” Beaven said. “I actually worked with Gov. Bush in the past. I wasn’t blasting him, I was blasting you. Because the truth is, you can’t be ideologically aligned with the birther sheriff in Arizona, Phyllis Schlafly, the Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, Dick Armey, and Jeb Bush. All I’m saying Ron is, you need to tell people who you are ideologically.”
In fact, she had used a statement by Bush to unfairly paint DeSantis as “pro tax hike.” Bush had spoken publicly of his willingness to accept a $1 tax increase for every $10 in spending cuts, and from that concluded that because DeSantis got the Bush endorsement, DeSantis was “just like the rest of the Tea Party fakes in Congress.” In fact, it’s been tea party congressmen who have opposed so much as $1 in tax increases for every $10 in cuts.
It was that kind of snark-for-tat debate.
The DeSantis Deception
But DeSantis, who was better composed and more eloquent throughout, was also far looser with facts than Beaven. The two false statements outlined above aside, she was more willing to engage in issues rather than generalities, though she tended to ramble more while repeatedly attacking DeSantis and trying to contrast his moderate demeanor with his decidedly immoderate positions. She called him “Ron” throughout, often staring at him, while DeSantis, when he referred to Beaven at all, called her “Mrs. Beaven,” and stared ahead at the crowd, occasionally grinning Biden-like at Beaven’s words. Both slung a few darts at each other, but never once interrupted each other or veered toward the inelegant.
The way both candidates answered the question on what to do with the federal government’s $16 trillion debt illustrates the limitations of their skills and the extent to which DeSantis in particular went to make false statements. Neither, in the end, answered the question with so much as one realistic proposal, as opposed to vague generalities such as “growing the economy” and cutting spending.
Here’s DeSantis’s full answer, analyzed and fact-checked in italics along the way:
“How do you deal with deficit spending and the debt? You try to stop spending first of all. We’re spending at a level that’s simply unsustainable.” DeSantis never proposed a single specific cut. “We’re about 24 percent of the GDP no matter which type of tax regime you choose.” It’s not clear what he meant by “24 percent of the GDP,” particularly since, later in the debate, he said, correctly, that the debt is larger than the nation’s total annual economic output. “We’ve never been able to raise that much in tax revenue, and the simple fact is that people change their behavior once you start raising tax rates, so we have to understand that the government is spending more than they ever have.” The statement makes no sense, factually or historically: the top marginal tax rate in 1944 reached 94 percent, it was in the 90 percent range throughout the 1950s, when tax revenue paid down the debt accumulated to pay for World War II, and the 70 percent range until the Reagan years. And of course the tax increases of the Clinton years wiped out the federal deficit for the first time since the 1960s while creating 23 million jobs.
DeSantis continued: “We need to have a plan to reduce federal spending.” He did not provide one. “You also need to look at actual things that you could do to reduce it. Now, we had an economic downturn, and the answer to that was to spend almost $1 trillion on a stimulus program. That didn’t work. We tried it, and it failed.” False. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus added as much as 3.3 million jobs to the economy. Where most economists disagree is over the size of the stimulus, with some saying that a larger stimulus would have had a greater, more lasting effect.
DeSantis again: “And then, even before the economy started to recover, we passed, well, some in Congress passed, a brand new health care entitlement, Obamacare. They said it was going to cost $800 billion over 10 years, well now we know it’s going to cost at least twice that much, and probably much more. If you are already running trillion-dollar deficits, why would you then add $2 trillion in new spending on top of it?” An outright lie. In March, the Congressional Budget Office had estimated the cost of Obamacare over 10 years at $1.25 trillion. In July, the cost was revised downwardby $84 billion, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision and lower expected expenses on Medicaid, while the federal budget deficit itself would be cut over 10 years, because of Obamacare. In fact, the repeal of Obamacare, which DeSantis advocates, would itself add $109 billion to the federal budget deficit over 10 years, according to the CBO.
“Finally I would just say that we could sit here and talk about taxes and spending. That’s important. But you’ve got to start growing the economy. The economy in our country is growing at 1.3 percent. As long as you’re growing at that rate you’re never going to be able to make a dent in the unemployment rate and you’re never going to have a steady stream of tax revenue to help close this budget deficit.” Again, mostly false: the unemployment rate is the lowest it’[s been since January 2009, when Obama took office, and over 5 million jobs have been created in that time-span—more jobs than in the first four years of the George W. Bush administration, which emerged from a far shallower recession. “So rather than try to tax our way out of it, I would support pro-growth policies that try to incentivize success, allow people to start businesses without being burdened by bureaucracy and red tape. If you do that, if you understand that economies grow at the grass-roots level, not from Washington, I think we have a chance to fix the problem.” DeSantis did not specify what those “pro-growth” policies would be.
Rice subsequently asked a question directly related to health care, giving DeSantis again the opportunity to speak against Obamacare, but also to make additional false statements: “It shifts $716 billion away from Medicare into Obamacare. That’s going to mean that doctors and providers are not going to get the reimbursements that they had been accustomed to. That’s going to case many of them to stop seeing Medicare patients.” False. No money is being “shifted” to Obamacare. The $716 billion is a projected saving from a reduction in Medicare’s growth, and in amounts paid to hospitals (if they have too many re-admissions, meaning iof they show poor job performance) and insurers, through cost-savings by reigning in such insurance supplements as Medicare Advantage—a Bush-era addition that has increased the cost of insurance instead of reducing it. To compensate, health providers are likely to seek out more, not less, Medicare patients. The Romney-Ryan budget plan, incidentally, includes that $716 billion saving in its own calculations, making those who criticize it, while supporting the Romney-Ryan plan, not only dishonest but hypocritical.
DeSantis continued, regarding Obamacare: “It creates an unelected board of 15 unelected bureaucrats called the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which has the power to reduce Medicare reimbursements without the approval of Congress.” False. The statement has been a favorite of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, but it’s simply not true. The 15 board members are appointed by the president but approved or rejected by the Senate, they may serve only two six-year terms, and their recommendations may be rejected by Congress. The panel doesn’t touch Medicare reimbursements. It may only recommend cost-savings if Medicare grows beyond what savings are built into the program (such as those $716 billion), or what Congress can find in savings.
Beaven’s “New Economy”
Beaven’s answer on controlling the deficit and on Obamacare was far less rife with inaccuracies or falsehoods, but it also avoided specifics, and meandered in odd, inexplicable directions. Here’s her full answers, again with italicized analysis and fact-checking:
“I actually don’t believe that you can cut your way to prosperity. We could end the federal government and not realize our way out of debt. I think the key to growing ourselves out of debt is realizing that this in fact isn’t a recession at all. It’s a changing economy.” It’s an odd declaration: while the recession officially ended two years ago, the current recovery is nevertheless recognized as an anemic recovery out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, while areas such as Flagler County are still mired in an old-style recession—not because the economy is changing locally, but because its reliance on construction and real estate, two slow-growth sectors, persists, and will persist for coming years. “I happen to think that that economy is going to be centered on energy, and I think whichever country answers the question of energy, clean, renewable, green, whoever, whatever country answers that question will find themselves dominating the globe, will find themselves most prosperous and the most safe country in the world during the 21st century and I would like that to be the United States of America.
“So I think that’s paramount. And I think what we have in Congress right now is people who either don’t know the truth, people who are still talking about this as a recession, or people who aren’t willing to admit the fact that this is not a recession, this is a brand new economy. We know that because we did all the things that the 20th century did during the recession, and they worked during the 20th century. We did the stimulus, we did the bailout, we did TARP, we did home-mortgage modification, we did all of the things that used to work for us, and they haven’t worked, because I think we’re throwing old solutions at new problems.” As with DeSantis’s answer about the stimulus not working, Beaven’s claim that the bailout, the stimulus or TARP haven’t worked are inaccurate: all three have had measurable impacts on the economy, arresting its downfall, creating jobs and, in TARP’s case (the Troubled Asset Relief Program signed into law by George W. Bush), paying the government back for most of its expenditures. “Once we elect people to office who realize this is a brand new world, and that the economy is forever changed, that we lost 20 percent of our jobs—and those jobs are coming back—once we elect people to Congress who will lead through those tough questions, we’ll be a better, safer country.”
Beaven was also critical of Obamacare, saying that “only Congress can lose control of the conversation this badly, and they did,” but, she added, “The chances of Ron going to Congress and ending it are nil. So we really need to just move on.” She was critical of the Medicare prescription drug plan passed during the Bush years without a way to pay for it, and critical of any plan to “voucherize,” or privatize, Medicare.
In a surprise comeback, DeSantis said he was opposed to a voucher plan, even though he’s supported the Ryan-Romney budget plan—in which the Medicare voucher plan forms a central plank. “I’m not in favor of changing anything for people who are on Medicare,” DeSantis said. “I think Obamacare does that, which is one of the reasons why I oppose it. I’m not in favor of sending people a coupon, a voucher, even people in my generation as we get older, because to just take a coupon isn’t going to make sense. So I’ve embraced reforms that have been supported by Democrats and Republicans. But I would not apply that to anybody who’s at or near retirement.” He did not explain what those reforms might be: means-testing Medicare eligibility? Raising the eligibility age? Raising the Medicare payroll tax? All those ideas have been presented in Congress, but DeSantis did not say which one he’d embrace.
Neither candidate could answer the question about improving the local economy. DeSantis called it “the defining issue” of the election, but his best solution was to pump out more energy, mostly in fossil-fuel form, to help lower the cost of gas, and, again returning to his bête noire, repealing Obamacare.
Beaven’s answer on the matter was puzzling. “District 6 is nestled between Orlando and Jacksonville as we all know, and we actually are a microcosm of exactly what I think the new 21st century looks like. We have to do it organically, because of geography, but I think that we can be a real role model to the nation. We have lots of small businesses, we have lots of family farms, we have an embarrassment of riches in our natural resources, there are not many places in the world, aside from the county line of St. Johns and Flagler, that you can put your foot in the ocean, the Intracoastal, and the St. Johns River all within 30 minutes of each other. And we should really elect somebody to Congress who’s willing to take advantage of all those opportunities.”
She could just as easily have said that Las Vegas is the only place where someone can have a foot in Vegas, on the Hoover Dam and on the Colorado River, all within 30 minutes of each other: how that translates into unusual job opportunities is difficult to deduce. She was stronger with suggesting “a powerful investment” in the nation’s infrastructure, “which will radically change our economy.” Specificvally, she said, an investment in the nation’s 8,000 bridges that Beaven described as “at risk of instant collapse.”
That was not an exaggeration. The Federal Highway Administration has identified 72,000 bridges that are structurally deficient, and 7,980 bridges that are “fracture critical,” which means that if a single critical structure on the bridge fails, it all falls down. That’s what happened in 2007 with the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, killing 13 people.
DeSantis’s come-back: “With the roads and bridges, and I think that’s an important thing, it’s a legitimate function of government, but we were told that that was going to be taken care of with this last stimulus. Yet as they looked at it they said well, we’ve got all these shovel-ready projects, two years later, actually shovel-ready projects don’t exist, because there’s so much bureaucracy and red tape, it’s hard to even get the money in these places. So I’m just not sure that that’s going to end up creating jobs throughout the entire country. I don’t think that building bridges is going to be able to appreciably reduce the unemployment rate in places like Volusia and Flagler and Putnam County, which all have unemployment rates above the national average.”
The two candidates had a somewhat spirited exchange on military issues.
“We need to stop thinking of the war on terror in a 20th century way,” Beaven said. “We need to stop thinking of it as a war against another country and start thinking of it much more in the ways of SWAT team, law-enforcement maneuvers. We need to stop asking our military to nation-build. That’s not what they’re trained to do. It is not their expertise.”
Beaven’s mention of “law enforcement” in the context of the war on terror gave DeSantis an opening to pounce. “Terrorism is an act of war, not just another criminal offense,” he said, again mischaracterizing Beaven’s words. “I would not treat it as a law enforcement issue. We did that in the 90s. Osama bin laden would blow up an embassy, and we filed a federal indictment in a court in New York. I got news for you: he’s not going to show up to that arraignment.” He conceded that it would not involve “a huge infantry force going in,” but special force-type operations are not law enforcement operations.
Beaven corrected him, saying that the SWAT operations she was talking about are precisely like the sort of operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
DeSantis and Beaven on a Rowboat
DeSantis further pushed the mis-characterizations at the end of the debate: “Mrs. Beaven has said that we just have a new economy,” DeSantis said, “essentially that this is a new normal that we just have to adapt to. I don’t believe that. People said that when Ronald Reagan was coming up, that we were in an era of limits, that we’ll never really be able to put people back to work, that we were consigned to a permanent malaise. I think it’s a mistake if we think that these problems can’t be solved.” That, of course, was not at all what Beaven had said when she described the nation on the way to a “new economy.”
“The good thing about some of the problems is that many of them are self-inflicted wounds from bad policies from both parties,” DeSantis said. “I think we can go up and correct some of the mistakes that have been made over the last very many years.” But he offered not a single hint about how he would do it, other than by reducing taxes and eliminating regulations.
“It feels to me like Ron and I are rowing toward the same horizon, and I can’t wait to get there,” Beaven said at the end of the debate. “I keep thinking, God, what’s on the other side, it’s so exciting, all new, and within our power to mold. And Ron keeps rowing backwards, positive that a cliff is just on the other side, and that’s just really what it feels like to me in this race.” The imagery was as fuzzy as many of the statements Beaven had made during the debate—and as gauzy as the statements DeSantis had made about sticking with the unspecified founding principles of the nation. Both candidates got rousing applause in the end, including an extra, “bi-partisan” round that Rice, the moderator, asked for them.