Berkley-Heller debate was an embarrassment all around

If ever there were a time capsule dedicated to the dissipation of political discourse, Thursday evening’s Nevada U.S. Senate debate should be a featured item.

The candidates showed a consistent lack of respect for the electorate, leaving one to wonder: Do the voters deserve the disdain? I worry about the answer.

But I fret more about the level of the colloquy in this U.S. Senate race, which is the lowest in all of the ones I have covered since 1986. Yes, it’s worse than Harry Reid and Sharron Angle in 2010. Angle said many outrageous things and Reid had a few doozies. But neither produced the consistent, repetitious inanities that Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley did on Thursday in Reno’s KNPB studios, emblematic of this ever-disappointing campaign.

I readily acknowledge that I loathe the format for the debate. Giving the candidates each one minute to answer and then a 30-second rebuttal guarantees they will simply fill the allotted time with canned responses, only occasionally responding to a foe’s broadside. It illuminates nothing, except a person’s ability to memorize talking points. And this tells us what about their legislative or leadership abilities?

If I heard Berkley sneer about “Big Oil” one more time or Heller whine yet again about his opponent being a liar, I might have ended my career covering politics as I know it. A debate is when the journalists have the ability to follow up and the candidates can engage each other.  Instead, we got an hour of a completely dispiriting non-debate.

What happens too often during debates is what happens too often during campaigns: Otherwise relatively normal human beings disgorge utterances that no normal person would dare to say. To wit:

Heller: "Nobody has done more to hurt the middle class than my opponent.” Really? Nobody?

Berkley: “My opponent has voted for budget after budget that balances our budget on the backs of our senior citizens and our veterans.” Really? Their backs must be sore.

Berkley clearly was much more nervous than Heller and stumbled more frequently, even appearing to be lost when asked for her closing statement. But that is understandable: Unlike Heller, she has not had a real race since 1998 and is not used to the intensity of a real debate.

I also thought that she fell much more easily into the same, hackneyed talking points, not just repeating the “Big Oil” mantra but others, too. Heller accessed his programming, too, referring to Berkley’s ethics troubles as often as he could and repeatedly tying her to President Obama. (Strangely, he did not mention Mitt Romney’s name once – how proud he seems of his party’s presidential nominee.)

If Berkley was more unsteady, it’s only because Heller must be taking some potent anti-dizziness medication. How can he not have vertigo after morphing from the moderate assemblyman to populist secretary of state to right-wing fanatic (after his near-death experience at the hands of Angle in 2006) and now back toward the middle as he races away from Romney at about 47 miles an hour?

The questioners were constrained by the format, with only the irrepressible Ray Hagar of the Reno Gazette-Journal daring to once violate protocol by following up. There was no way to elicit anything from the candidates under the restrictive strictures.

So we were stuck with two hopefuls, three weeks away from early voting, trying not to make a mistake (there was nothing major) and repeating shopworn campaign themes.

Indeed, this is now a campaign where one candidate (Heller) is airing a spot designed to emphasize his opponents occasionally grating voice (if I ever ran for office…) while another (Berkley) has tried to tie her foe to a diamond scam he wasn’t remotely involved in.

I don’t want to delve too much into the minutiae of the debate and you can read the coverage hereherehere and here.

But let me just pluck two “issues” that came up that are emblematic of the hollowness of the candidates – or at least their performances during this debate, a microcosm of the campaign.

Hagar asked a question about an issue Berkley has pushed, which is Heller's use of the term “hobos" during a speech two years ago about unemployment benefits. Berkley’s campaign – and she repeated it last night – has claimed over and over that the senator called the jobless “hobos.” That’s ridiculous and clearly not what he meant, as summarized by the Sun’s Anjeanette Damon in her story when she said he “used the label while questioning whether prolonging unemployment benefits would leave Americans forever unable to find work.”

That’s a debate worth having – whether unemployment benefits should be extended indefinitely– but that wasn’t going to happen last night.

The other “issue” is the DREAM Act, which was an invitation for Berkley to pander to Hispanic voters, which she needs to consolidate to win. Fine. But I was more struck with Heller’s answer to the question, blaming senatorial procedure (restrictive amendments) to defend himself against his clear opposition to the plan and his other incendiary positions for Hispanics, including his embrace of SB 1070, rather than addressing the core issues of the DREAM Act. It would have been interesting to hear Berkley and Heller actually debate the immigration problem – but that wasn’t going to happen last night.

That was no debate. That was a travesty, perhaps the worst in Nevada Senate race history in a contest that is sprinting to the bottom before Election Day.