By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
Talking about “the lion of free enterprise,” rarely accusing the other of lyin’, and demonstrating that their differences lie in fundamental philosophical disagreements about government’s role, Congressman Tim Walz and challenger Allen Quist debated before an overflow crowd in Mankato Tuesday night.
South-central Minnesotans once again showed they love a good congressional debate, filling the 350 seats at Minnesota State University’s Ostrander Auditorium with nearly 100 more standing in the aisles. And they heard a mostly civil but often intense clash between Walz, a three-term Democrat from Mankato, and Quist, a retired farmer and Republican former state legislator.
Over 90 minutes, they discussed and mostly disagreed over everything from taxes and spending to torture and health care as they handled nearly 20 questions from debate moderators and audience members.
Repeatedly, the disputes centered on whether government policies and investments can spur private sector growth or whether the only real hope for economic improvement is to reduce tax and regulatory burdens on private businesses.
“It’s not one or the other,” Walz said when asked if new technologies should be developed by the private sector or public investment.
Government grants have been crucial in developing public universities, scientific discoveries and cures to diseases, said Walz, who insisted that those investments must continue even as federal deficits are reduced.
“That doesn’t make us socialists,” he said. “That makes us smart.”
While Quist said he doesn’t oppose all government research, he supports deep cuts in federal spending outside of Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, aid to college students and road and bridge funding. In the long term, maintaining beneficial federal programs requires tough choices in the face of trillion-dollar annual deficits.
Along with spending cuts, pro-business policies are required to boost economic growth — and the jobs and tax revenue that comes with it, according to Quist.
“To get our financial house in order, we have to unleash the lion of free enterprise,” he said, suggesting his policies could more than double recent U.S. economic growth rates. “... It’s by freedom, not more government.”
Almost regardless of the question, the answers of the candidates returned to those philosophical differences with Walz talking about a balanced approach where lawmakers of both parties seek common ground and Quist saying that deal-making in the name of compromise has produced a $16 trillion debt and an ever-expanding government.
Taxes and spending
Talking about the low approval ratings of Congress — down to 9 percent in a poll earlier this year — Quist blamed the size of the national debt and the recent escalation in yearly deficits.
“This is banana republic type economics. It’s hard to believe this is going on in the United States of America, but it is,” Quist said. “... I want to do my part to get this train turned around.”
Walz blamed the unwillingness of many in Congress to compromise, specifically singling out the vast majority of Republicans who have signed the no-new-taxes pledge of anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist. Huge tax cuts and foreign wars were authorized during the presidency of George W. Bush with no plan for paying for them, according to Walz.
“If you don’t understand where the problem was created, it’s going to be hard to fix it,” said Walz, who called for a return to pay-as-you-go rules that require all new spending and tax cuts to be offset by tax increases or spending reductions elsewhere in the budget.
Quist, who signed the Norquist pledge, said tax hikes are a mistake.
“If you raise taxes, you harm the economy and you avoid making the real decision you need to make,” he said, repeating his mantra about the importance of freeing up “the lion of free enterprise.”
Walz countered that eliminating Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, which he said did nothing to promote job growth, would create new revenue for debt reduction and ease cuts to programs crucial to the middle-class.
“The problem we have in politics now is that it’s all ‘all or nothing’ solutions,” Walz said.
Democratic calls for a “balanced approach” of cuts and tax increases on the wealthy are really “political jargon” that translates to “tax hikes,” Quist said. Tax increases will only dampen economic growth, which he said will worsen the federal deficit in two ways.
“Your tax revenue goes down, your welfare goes up,” he said.
Asked if they would support changing the Medicare program to one where future recipients receive a federal voucher to buy private insurance, Walz said he wouldn’t.
“Medicare has been the single greatest anti-poverty program this country has ever seen,” Walz said.
Quist answered, “Well, I don’t think so,” before turning the topic to the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
Dubbing it the “Unaffordable Care Act,” Quist said the reform supported by Walz interjects government deeply into the health care system and will inevitably make it less efficient and more bureaucratic.
“It spends money we don’t have,” Quist said. “And how many of you think we can spend money we don’t have?”
Walz talked about the more popular provisions in the bill, including requirements that children be covered on their parents’ insurance policy until age 26, a prohibition on insurance companies denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and the promise that it will provide health care for more than 50 million uninsured Americans.
But Walz focused on the reforms in the bill, saying they will reduce medical costs by focusing on healthy outcomes rather than simply reimbursing providers for procedures performed in clinics and hospitals.
“This thing starts to get a handle on it,” Walz said of mounting health care costs.
The debate was moderated by a pair of Mankato natives and retired radio newsmen — Gary Eichten of Minnesota Public Radio and Pete Steiner of KTOE. One of the few jabs of the debate followed Quist’s ribbing of Eichten about the public funding for MPR, paid by taxpayers like himself.
“Even though you owe me one, I’m not going to collect,” Quist said.
Walz then pointed out that Quist has repeatedly taken farm subsidies over the years.
“You owe Gary about $600,000 on the farm bill,” Walz said.
Quist responded by noting that Walz voted for a farm bill that continues many of those subsidies.
“So he’s going to criticize me for the program that he voted for and supports,” Quist said. “... This is really low politics.”
Sponsored by Debate Minnesota, Tuesday night’s 1st District run-in — the last between the two candidates before the Nov. 6 election — is scheduled to be rebroadcast on MPR at noon today. In the Mankato area, MPR’s news channel can be heard at 90.5 FM.