DEBATE REVIEW: Mary’s No Good, Very Bad Night

Well, that got ugly pretty fast.

In the last debate before Tuesday’s Senate primary election, the three major candidates took to the LSU Manship School of Journalism podiums (or is it podia?) and gave the voters an hour’s worth of speechifying as to why they deserve our votes.

Or in Mary Landrieu’s case, why she’s ready to become a lobbyist.

This had to be the worst debate performance of Landrieu’s career.

It started with her opening, in which she thanked Rob Maness for showing up to all the debates and then snarked about how Bill Cassidy skipped a debate that was only available on cable access TV in most of the state Monday night. Considering that most people don’t watch the debates or if they do they probably don’t watch all of them, making a big issue out of the fact Cassidy hasn’t been at all the debates when he was at this one doesn’t come off as very senatorial – it comes off as petty, and even bitchy.

What’s more, it sets a pretty high standard – because if you want to set the tone for the debate with an insinuation that Cassidy is afraid to step into the ring, you pretty much have to beat him for the next hour.

And she didn’t.

The first question was about ISIS, and whether we need ground troops to beat them, and Mary said she wouldn’t rule them out. Cassidy then opened by saying Obama has no plan and no credibility on the question of military and security matters in that part of the world. Maness then griped at both Cassidy and Landrieu for not being up in Washington considering authorizations for military force or otherwise solving the problem. But since neither one of them control the calendar in the House and Senate, and since it’s completely insane to expect a halt to campaign season less than a week from Election Day, he didn’t exactly score there.

After that was Landrieu getting the question on Chartergate, to which her response was that it was a bookkeeping error. Then she said she’s given money back to the federal treasury every year. What she would have profited from doing as a response would have been to shovel some dirt on Cassidy for whatever malfeasance she might have been able to pin on him – but she didn’t have anything.

Next up was a question to Cassidy about skipping the debates, and he mentioned that he was participating in this one, and then rattled off a litany of campaign appearances in places like Ferriday and Ruston he took part in because he wasn’t at the debate on Monday.

Maness then got a question about limiting himself to two terms in the Senate, and if he was doing that while nobody else was, wouldn’t he be screwing the people of Louisiana out of the seniority he could otherwise give us? His answer was that if two terms was good enough for George Washington it’s good enough for him, and that nobody should be worried about it because he’s for term limits for everybody. Which doesn’t exactly resolve the concern that prompted the question.

Then came a question on Social Security, and the fact that in 15 years the program is going to have to cut benefits unless it’s restructured. Maness’ answer was essentially that he doesn’t have a clue what to do about Social Security but he’d get everybody in a room and figure it out, plus there’s 15 years to come up with a plan and that’s plenty of time. Cassidy talked about what he’d voted for, which is a gradual step-up in the retirement age for young people that he says will keep Social Security afloat and keep everybody’s benefits from getting cut.

While Maness’ answer was problematic, Landrieu’s was positively hilarious. She decided this would be a good time to play the race card and say that black people in Madison Parish only have a life expectancy of 70 years and that Cassidy would deny poor black people in Madison Parish the chance to retire. Or something. And that she would never raise the retirement age. There weren’t any groans in the audience, but there certainly could have been. She then added to that by playing the “Eat The Rich” card by suggesting higher taxes on millionaires, which put her in severe jeopardy of getting wiped out when one of the other two hit her with “those are the people who hire employees who’d pay into Social Security, and you just stopped them from hiring more people to contribute to the program.”

That opportunity was missed, but Cassidy did come back with the solid point that the actuaries have said what Landrieu wants to do won’t work. And that was enough to clearly win the point – and moderator John Snell actually helped him by challenging Landrieu in saying “your plan would insure everybody gets a cut in benefits.” She didn’t have a response to that, and before the question was done Landrieu was reduced to ask, as Maness was giving a follow-up answer about Social Security, “What’s his plan?” When you’re spending your breath chiding the guy who has less than 15 percent of the vote for not having a plan, you’re not spending it effectively.

Then came illegal immigration, and Landrieu said she supports a border fence. And amnesty. When Cassidy and Maness got through with her, the answer was “mostly amnesty.” Cassidy pounded her on that quote about how she’d voted for the “dumb fence” once but wouldn’t do it again, and her response was that she wanted a smart fence that would know the difference between a deer and a Mexican.

If you’re asking yourself what the hell you just read, the answer is “exactly.”

Cassidy managed to leave himself a bit of wiggle room by saying he’s opposed to amnesty of any kind, but that he might have some flexibility if the border was secured. Maness wants to catch all the illegals and send ’em home.

Then came the Medicaid expansion question, when the wheels really began to come off for Mary. She said Gov. Jindal is basically the devil for not taking the money, because it’s free swag from Uncle Sam for the first three years and after that all you’ve got to do is cough up a dime and you’ll get 90 cents for free. Then she said Bill Cassidy gets paid by Medicaid so why isn’t that good enough for him?

Cassidy’s answer was one of several highlights on the night, as he ran through several arguments against the Medicaid expansion – the fact that it’s going to cost Louisiana several hundred million dollars according to an Urban Institute study, that most of the people who would go on the Medicaid expansion would be dropping private insurance, that where they’ve done the Medicaid expansion it leads to more people in emergency rooms, that Medicaid health outcomes are no better than being uninsured and that when the bill comes due to the state you can go talk to F. King Alexander, LSU’s president who was in the audience, about how he’s going to absorb the budget cut he’ll have to so the state can pay for Medicaid. He didn’t quite deliver it in the style of a Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino so that it would have made it to YouTube as a verbal beatdown for the ages, but on the facts it was pretty strong. And the money quote, that Medicaid is the illusion of coverage without the power of access, was a memorable one.

After that, things went into a bit of a lull, as the Ebola question produced a Landrieu response saying she’s for a 21-day quarantine of people coming from West Africa and this is a different position from President Obama’s, and then questions about higher education and jobs led to Cassidy and Maness circling back to Obamacare and pounding Landrieu on the issue.

But then came the Keystone XL question, and out came the long knives…

And there went the “Clout” argument.

From there came a question about some of the “crossover” support Landrieu has received, with Boysie Bollinger’s name coming up. And instead of Cassidy lowering the boom on Landrieu, this time it was Maness. While Landrieu used the question as a vehicle to talk about how she’s done such great work in helping to grow Louisiana’s economy Maness said that Bollinger supports Landrieu because she got him a contract to build six Coast Guard cutters when the Coast Guard only needs two. Landrieu, sputtering, responded that it was over the line for him to say that and that she’s the best friend the Coast Guard ever had. And then she threw Obama under the bus by saying that the Coast Guard needs those cutters and Obama was gutting their budget – which she saved them from.

It might have been as good an answer as she could have given, and since Cassidy had already received a max-out donation from Bollinger for this cycle even before he declared for the Senate he probably wasn’t quite the right guy to wade into that fight, but this was where Maness had an opportunity to play bull-in-a-china-shop with nothing to lose and he took it. In one fell swoop he basically called Landrieu a crook and Bollinger a rent-seeker, and he accused her of wasting federal dollars on pork. That answer might not have gotten him any votes, and even if it did it wouldn’t put him in the runoff, but he was still able to leave Landrieu bleeding by the roadside.

Cassidy had no popcorn available to watch the exchange. Which is a shame, because he needed it at that point. It was the high point of the debate.

Then there was a question about the racial income gap, which Cassidy used to talk about Obamacare and the deleterious effect on the supply of good jobs it has had on all Louisianans to include the black community. Landrieu then said the gap was due to racism – which won’t do much to improve the 25 percent showing among white people James Carville and Stan Greenberg found in their survey of likely white Louisiana voters a week ago.

Then, asked about equal pay for women, Landrieu got hit on the accusation she pays female employees less than male staffers. She denied that, brought up her black chief of staff and then touted the Lily Ledbetter law that Cassidy opposes. When you get accused of being part of the problem, and your answer is to say you support a law that would make your being part of the problem illegal…it’s not convincing.

And so it went, over the course of a terrible hour for the incumbent. And after that beating, Landrieu actually attempted to snark again about how Cassidy had ducked a pair of debates. That rang very, very hollow.

It was a terrible night for Landrieu, and it all but assured she won’t have a path to 50 percent on Tuesday.

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