Take two great candidates – both principled, dedicated public servants. Now throw them into a dead-heat U.S. Senate race, with possible control of the senate at stake. Don’t forget: The candidates have fundamental differences about the most pressing issues facing the nation.
Sound like the perfect occasion for a high-minded debate? Guess again.
A swirling vortex of outlandish charges and bitter personal attacks has built up in recent weeks in the debris-choked face of a tidal wave of special interest money. The campaign has attracted millions from out-of-state Super PACS, trying to influence the election without revealing their funding sources, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The bitter, misleading, increasingly irrelevant contest between Rep. Jeff Flake and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona has turned into precisely the kind of bloody cage fight that has disillusioned voters.
The mud-slinging for the moment turns on whether the war-hero Carmona is a sexist with a temper and whether anti-government-spending crusader Flake is a shill for mining companies who want to strip mine the Grand Canyon.
Mind you, the two candidates have deep, sustained differences on how to control Medicare costs, whether to expand medical coverage to millions of the uninsured, how to stimulate the economy, how to reduce the federal deficit and whether to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
Moreover, they each offer impressive resumés.
Flake hails from a pioneering Arizona Mormon family. He helped make the Goldwater Institute the heavyweight think tank for Conservatives in Arizona, then served five terms as a Phoenix area congressman, where he espoused many Libertarian views and crusaded against congressional earmarks and overspending. That made him a thorn in the side of his own party and forced him to explain to hometown voters why he refused to play the pork barrel games on which so many congressmen depend for re-election.
Carmona was born into poverty of Puerto Rican parents, joined the Special Forces, won combat bronze stars in combat and two purple hearts, won more awards for service under fire on a Pima County SWAT team, got his medical degree, overhauled the Tucson trauma system then served as U.S. Surgeon General, where he came under fire for refusing to politicize scientific reports.
Given those differences, you’d think Flake and Carmona would have one of those feel-good-about-Democracy policy debates — two honorable public servants debating deep, philosophical difference.
No such luck.
Let’s see if we can capture the current flavor of the debate.
Forces aligned with Flake pushed the campaign into the Dark Side when polls showed Carmona overtaking him.
The Flake campaign put out statements by a former U.S. Health and Human Services administrator, Cristina Beato, who said the Surgeon General showed up at her doorstep late one night so upset about some policy issue that it frightened her.
That attack countered the Carmona campaign’s attempt to exploit Flake’s support for hot-button women’s issues, like efforts to outlaw abortion, take money away from Planned Parenthood and limit access to birth control in health plans.
The Carmona camp pushed back with a wealth of statements from women he’d worked with who testified to his even temper and fine qualities. He insisted the whole incident Beato described never happened.
Carmona then blundered during one of his rare debates with Flake, when he joked with the male moderator Brahm Resnik was “prettier” than Candy Crowley, the CNN corresponded who moderated the second presidential debate. The Flake campaign and its surrogates pounced gleefully on Carmona’s quip, doing their energetic best to portray him as a sexist rage-muffin. Carmona sheepishly apologized for the remark.
The tactic recalls the line of attack George Bush used to knock war hero Senator John McCain out of the North Carolina primary. At that time, the Bush attack suggested McCain had “anger issues” due to his time as a POW, a classic example of Republican Political Guru Carl Rove’s strategy: Attack your opponent on his strongest points — not his weakest.
The Carmona campaign has hit back with a series of less personal, but still oddly off-topic attacks.
Carmona highlighted a slew of Flake’s votes against bills for veterans programs. Flake’s record provides something of a happy hunting ground for such approaches, as he has for years voted repeatedly against spending bills, which bundle so many programs together to make it almost impossible to vote against them.
Moreover, Flake has repeatedly voted for Republican budget plans that slash the deficit with an unwieldy mixture of tax cuts and spending cuts, resulting in drastic cuts in just about everything the government does.
Carmona remains blissfully unburdened by a voting record, since he’s never served in Congress or the state Legislature.
Most recently, Carmona has hit Flake for supporting a resumption of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. The Carmona attack ads imply Flake wants to strip mine Grand Canyon National Park and dump the radioactive tailings in the Colorado River — probably because he used to lobby for mining companies.
In fact, Flake does uranium mining — but only outside the park boundaries.
He also has staunchly opposed federal attempts to force the coal-fired Navajo generating plant and others to install expensive anti-pollution equipment to help protect dwindling visibility in the Grand Canyon, saying the retrofits will shut down the plant without actually improving visibility.
The League of Conservation Voters and other groups have criticized both positions, expressing fears about eventually polluting the Colorado River and hurting the vital Northern Arizona tourism industry.
Hey, at least Flake hasn’t yet wrapped his arms around a resolution by the Arizona Legislature that would signal the state’s interest in becoming the site of a nuclear waste reprocessing plant.
Oh — wait. That’s the wrong race. That’s the mostly irrelevant but inflammatory argument that’s playing out in the state house and senate seat that represents Rim Country.
In that case, Republicans Bob Thorpe, Chester Crandell and Brenda Barton want the nuclear waste reprocessing jobs and Democrats Angela LeFevre, Doug Ballard and Tom Chabin say counties should have the chance to opt out of any such scheme, which would blight the region’s tourist industry.
But then, that’s a whole other column.