Paul Bass / New Haven Independent photo

NEW HAVEN, CT — The Shubert theater staged a revival Monday night of the historic 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign debate. Bob Stefanowski played the role of John F. Kennedy.

True, Kennedy was a Democrat. Stefanowski is a Republican, a very conservative Republican, running for governor for 2018, not for president.

But Monday night he did to his Democratic opponent Ned Lamont what Kennedy did to Republican Richard Nixon in that famous 1960 televised debate. At the event Monday night at the Shubert, a televised gubernatorial debate, he commanded the visual stage of a visual event. People watching the debate saw one candidate who was relaxed, confident, clear. (That was Stefanowski.) They saw one candidate who looked angry, uptight, not ready for the spotlight.

Paul Bass / New Haven Independent photo

They heard one candidate set the terms of the debate, over and over again. That was Stefanowksi. “I will cut your taxes,” he said over and over again. “I don’t know what you guys saw,” he responded calmly at another point after Lamont spoke, “but I see higher taxes coming a mile away.” “I’m not going to raise taxes,” he told Lamont. “I’m gonna lower them.”

They saw one candidate make occasional jokes (in one case, instead of answering a question, about how eliminating income taxes bombed as a strategy in Kansas.) That was Stefanowski. The TV audience in the Shubert roared each time. Lamont didn’t make any jokes.

They saw one candidate talk about human beings. That was Bob Stefanowski. At the beginning and end of the debate he spoke about his 88-year-old father in the front row, who worked his way up to buy a $25,000 house he still lives in in North Haven and raised his son with opportunities. Ned Lamont didn’t talk about any people.

Adding to the physical dynamics, Stefanowski set the rhetorical boundaries for the debate: Who will cut taxes? He promised he would. He said people can’t trust Lamont not to raise taxes. At at time when progressive Democrats are connecting with voters with calls to increase taxes on the wealthy, Lamont insisted over and over again he wouldn’t really raise any taxes either. Period. (Well maybe tolls on interstate truck drivers.) In fact he argued that he’s the tax-cutter because he promises to restore a $300 property-tax exemption in his first term if elected, then build it to a $1,200 tax cut for some people in his second year. He competed with Stefanowski for who would make government more efficient in order to produce magic new revenue. The two candidates — one a retired top GE and UBS exec; the other a great-grandson of the chairman of J.P. Morgan who spent $10 million or more self-financing his runs for public office, competed for who’s the real businessman in the race. (Lamont: “I’m a business guy. I work well with business folks … I look a little like a Republican.”)

The debate became a battle for who is the true moderate Republican in this governor’s race. The taller, calmer, more self-confident white guy in a suit, at least on a visual basis, couldn’t possibly lose that contest on the Shubert stage, whatever the fine print of their policies truly says.

Watching the debate, which was sponsored by WTNH and the Connecticut Association of Realtors, you’d have had no idea that in fact Lamont is the moderate in the race or that Stefanowski heads a ticket that is so far to the right that even his own Republican primary opponents all called his ideas extreme. In terms of who “won” the debate, it wasn’t even close. In person or on TV.

What About On Radio?

The same was true for John F. Kennedy in his televised debate with Richard Nixon in 1960. Everyone declared Kennedy the winner. It was considered the first debate of the then-modern political era. Nixon wasn’t ready for it. He was prepared on points. He had more experience. He knew the issues better. But Kennedy knew how to appear before the cameras and in front of an audience. He knew how to look and talk like the leader prepared to take the helm of the ship of state. Nixon (like Lamont Monday night) looked like he was pissed off to be there.

Paul Bass / New Haven Independent photo

On radio, analysts were more split. Many who just listened to the debate, paid attention to the substance, so a more even match. Many thought Nixon made stronger arguments, or at least cogent arguments that more people would otherwise have agreed with.

The same occurred at Monday night’s gubernatorial debate. On substance, the two candidates were more evenly matched. Beyond Lamont’s capitulation to the “no new taxes” Republican refrain, even in the face of another $5 billion projected two-year deficit, the debate revealed clear differences between the candidates.

• The biggest difference, as has been the case throughout the campaign, is on the income tax. Stefanowski promises to eliminate it. He argued again Monday night that any time you cut taxes, more people stick around and invest and create wealth, which lifts the economy and produces more taxes. His guru on the subject is supply-side economist Art Laffer, who guided the Reagan tax cuts in the 1980s (based on the same supply-side economic theory (which even Reagan aides like budget director David Stockman later admitted they knew was a fantasy that simply masked a government giveaway to the rich).

Lamont pointed out that Laffer advised the governor of Kansas to eliminate the income tax five years ago with the same promise in growth. Instead, revenues tanked, public schools were starved, and even conservative Republicans eventually voted to restore taxes. Stefanwoski’s response? He noted that a third-party candidate for governor has the name Oz (Griebel; as in the Kansas-set Wizard of Oz). Then he pivoted to a crowd-pleaser: “Can you pick a more different state from Connecticut than Kansas?” (In the post-debate spin room with reporters, Stefanowski answered the question more substantively in response to questioning from WTNH political reporter Mark Davis; click on the Facebook Live video to watch.)

• Lamont sought to hammer Stefanowski Monday night on the consequences of eliminating the tax, which provides close to half of all state revenues, up to $10 billion a year. Lamont argues that that would eviscerate spending on public education and cause municipalities to raise local property taxes.

• Lamont came out for a gradual increase of the hourly minimum wage to $15 an hour. “You don’t even support the minimum wage” at all, Lamont pointed out to Stefanowski. “That helps build our middle class,” Lamont said of higher wages for the working poor. Stefanowski argued that lower taxes and elimination of mandates on employers do a better job of that.

• Lamont came out in favor of paid family medical leave. Stefanowski opposed it, favoring instead a plan to allow families to voluntarily set aside money for emergencies and employers to voluntarily match some of those dollars. He argued that a tax-cut-fueled economy would put more money in families’ pockets to save for medical emergencies. Rather than promising to galvanize, say, working families or single moms or elder-caring adults to pass a medical leave law, Lamont offered the moderate Republican strategy: “I will work closely with the CBIA [Connecticut Business & Industry Association]. I will work closely with the business community, and we will get this passed.”

• They had a similar split on prescription drugs: Lamont favored government action to cut prices in check. Stefanowski argued that government would make it worse. “The government controls the DMV. How’s that working out for you?” he asked, earning laughs again. He argued for free-market solutions like allowing people to shop across state lines for better prices.

The Aftermath

Paul Bass / New Haven Independent photo

Working in Stefanowski’s favor was his deep religious belief in his right-wing free market and tax-cutting positions, whether or not you agree with them. So in a debate defined by who’s the most convincing straight-ahead unalloyed pro-corporate tax-cutter under any circumstances, he could play the role without even trying.

Lamont’s views are more complicated, making them harder to explain, especially when they’re shrink-wrapped into poll-tested packages (like one telling him not to bring up his aversion to the estate tax, for instance, in a year when the Democratic base would disapprove).

Lamont availed himself better in the post-debate spin room, comfortably fielding as many questions as reporter threw at him (see video), unlike Stefanowski, whose manager cut off questions and generally shields him for interacting with reporters.

But even there, his tip-toeing around the 50-yard-line of political discourse tripped him up when AP reporter Susan Haigh pressed him on his position on tolls.

Paul Bass / New Haven Independent photo

Many Democrats favor tolls: Our neighboring states have them, so they’re collecting all that money from our drivers while we don’t collect money from theirs. And modern electronic tolls don’t make you stop or present safety hazards. But many other voters don’t favor tolls, or any attempt to raise revenue. So Lamont took a middle position: He’d put tolls only on tractor-trailers from out of state, the way Rhode Island does. In the debate Stefanowski called that a first step to eventual tolls on everyone.

In the spin room, Haigh asked Lamont if he would promise to veto any attempt by the legislature to expand tolls from out-of-state tractor-trailers to all drivers— a position a governor may conclude (as the current one did) is an essential part of any serious long-term budget fix.

“Look, I’m not there yet. We’re right at tractor-trailer trucks. Let’s see how it goes in Rhode Island,” Lamont responded. He was answering honestly, to an extent: To govern, he would need to keep his options open. he didn’t come across as someone who deep in his heart had a passionate, deeply felt position about the merits of tolls one way or the other. As opposed to Stefanowski, whose position is: Tolls bad. Period. Or as opposed to progressive and some moderate Democrats, whose position is: Responsible budget strategy must include tolls. Period.
Right or wrong, historians concluded that that 1960 debate might have swung the election for Kennedy.

A debate rarely does that. On its own Monday night’s debate probably won’t determine who is Connecticut’s governor. For instance, the Malloy-Trump issue — whether Republican attempts to tar Lamont with an unpopular governor will outweigh Democrats’ attempts to channel anti-Trump anger into Lamont votes — could prove the defining factor. And Stefanowski’s a political unknown; he hasn’t run for office before, let alone voted for 16 years.

But the debate did reflect important dynamics of the race, and some of the challenge Lamont faces trying to connect with voters and communicating a message to which everyday people can relate.

Stefanowski in post debate spin room

Posted by New Haven Independent on Monday, September 17, 2018

Post debate spin: Lamont

Posted by New Haven Independent on Monday, September 17, 2018