Round 2: Hagan v. Tillis was a battle of talking points
The idyllic vision of political debates is that they serve as an opportunity for the candidates to share their thoughts and ideas on issues of public policy, to engage with their opponents and clearly delineate where they stand and how they would impact public policy.
While we had a “debate” of sorts Tuesday evening between incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and challenger Thom Tillis, what we really got was a gloves-off slugfest of aggressive talking points. In other words, a no-holds brawl rather than a debate.
It started with the opening salvos, otherwise known as the opening statements, with both Democrat Hagan and Republican Tillis slinging their all-too-familiar talking points against one another: “96 percent with President Obama” versus “education cuts, education cuts, education cuts.”
In the first debate, both candidates were sizing each other up and not sure where to land the punches. But a month later, when both came out swinging at the very opening, it was like a feeding frenzy crowd circling around two fighters and yelling, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
And Hagan came loaded for bear. Perhaps having the ever-so-slight lead in the polls gave her more confidence. Usually, we see the candidate who is trailing in the polls become more aggressive, but this Hagan appeared much more comfortable on the attack.
At times, Tillis seemed to rely too much on his talking points. The constant repetition of “96 percent” and “regulatory burden” got burdensome after the first half hour. But his responses were obviously geared to shoring up his conservative base, while appearing to deliberately cast off of a middle-of-the-road moderate appeal.
Tillis’ major flaws were two notable flubs. When he failed to answer a very pointed question by George Stephanopoulos about what policy stance he would disagree with his own party, and when he stumbled on gay marriage inevitably becoming the law of the land in North Carolina.
For her part, Hagan was trying to be too cute in some of her answers, most notably a not-so-memorable use of the state’s toast in her closing remarks and throwing back at Tillis the line of him failing the state 100 percent of the time.
While the change in format provided more lightning when the candidates got the chance to question each other, it turned into another example of talking past each other and, more often than not, avoiding the question at all costs and going for the blows at every opportunity.
When the bell finally rang to end this round, it would be surprising if the needle moved any after this fight. Of the two contestants, Tillis needed to inject some energy into what appears to be a campaign stuck in stall. In the end, he seemed to be fighting to reinforce his base, and that’s not a good thing with a month to go before the final electoral fight.
If any partisan voter was out there, they were probably whooping and hollering that their candidate landed that one-two punch right in the jaw. For any undecided voter out there, they were probably thinking, when is this over?
Four more weeks, folks.
Dr. Michael Bitzer is provost and political science professor at Catawba College. This column first appeared on his blog for WFAE, The Party Line.