Fair and Unbalanced

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Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

gardner questions

 
The question in the 9News Senate debate was half-softball, half-gotcha and the answers, by themselves, meant little in the greater scheme of things.

Except for this:

On the night that co-moderator Kyle Clark directly challenged Cory Gardner’s apparent unwillingness to tell the truth, Gardner seems to have told, well, a whopper of a white lie.

It began this way. In trying to gauge how bipartisan Mark Udall or Gardner might be, Clark asked if either could recall voting for a candidate from the opposite party. Udall said he couldn’t, at least not in the last 10 years. Gardner said no.

Ace reporter Lynn Bartels, who has covered Gardner for years, was a little skeptical, and so she slid into the fact-check machine and didn’t come out until discovering this little gem:

Gardner was a registered Democrat for eight years, from 1992-2000. He said in debate this week that he has never voted for a Democratic candidate. Why would he say that?

Gardner, as he has said, was a Democrat back in the day. What I’d never seen was that he was a registered Democrat for eight years, from 1992-2000. That’s more than one third of his voting life. And so, to believe Gardner, we have to believe that in his eight years as a Democrat — as a very vocal Democrat, one actively involved in party affairs – that he never managed to vote for a member of his own party, even one whose nomination for office he had officially seconded.

Of course, I’m told there could be an alternative explanation for his recall deficit. Maybe he couldn’t recall as a result of concussions that he suffered during his football years.

Do you believe Gardner’s simple no?

Does anyone believe that?

But the real question is, if Gardner did lie, why would anyone lie about such a meaningless circumstance? If you add in the “There is no federal personhood bill” when there obviously is a federal personhood bill, and when you further add that Gardner says he didn’t vote for a government shutdown when he did, in fact, make votes that led directly to a government shutdown, you might wonder if there’s a trend.

I called the Gardner campaign to get Gardner’s side of the story. I laid it out for them. I asked for real alternative possibilities. And in what has become part of the Gardner narrative, they didn’t call back.

Debate day — the fourth debate in nine days — had begun brilliantly for Gardner. The polls keep coming in showing Gardner with a narrow but consistent lead. And then Deadspin, the sports gossip site, wrote a gotcha story saying it had caught Gardner in a lie. It wasn’t much of a story even if true, which it wasn’t. Gardner had told the Washington Post an anecdote involving his football days in Yuma and about a nearby opposing team that persisted in using the old single wing formation. That’s a deeply inside-football metaphor, but Gardner likes to do football metaphor.

Someone must have told Deadspin that Gardner had never played. Deadspin contacted an old Yuma teacher, the local high school football historian, who said that Gardner never played. Deadspin called the Gardner campaign, which (see above) never responded. But the story was wrong. It turns out Gardner had played JV ball. The campaign tweeted out the story and a photo of Gardner in uniform. Deadspin’s source told the Denver Post he had been wrong. And suddenly, as Deadspin apologized for its mistake, it was another example of the media attacking Gardner unfairly.

(The Colorado Independent has had its own fling with this. Gardner was quoted in the Congressional Quarterly transcript of a House hearing saying he had had two hip surgeries. The Independent quoted the Quarterly transcript, but The Quarterly, it turned out, had quoted the wrong congressperson. The Gardner campaign immediately tweeted that we had it wrong. The Independent took down the story in about two minutes and apologized for reproducing the error. The Gardner campaign, which had never returned the Independent’s calls and emails [see above and further above], reveled in the mistake for about two weeks.)

So, there was Deadspin and then there was the 9News debate’s decidedly anti-spin. And then there came Kyle Clark’s question, which may have transformed the debate.

In case you missed it, when addressing Gardner’s insistence that the federal personhood bill he co-sponsors is not actually a federal personhood bill, Clark said: “Let’s talk about what that entire episode may say about your judgment more broadly. A charitable interpretation would be that you have a difficult time admitting when you’re wrong and a less charitable interpretation would be that you’re not telling us the truth. Which is it?”

Clark’s question didn’t faze Gardner. He gave the same answer he always gives these days, that the bill is just a statement of belief. Hey, it’s what he says.

And so, did Gardner tell the truth on his voting record? (Just look at all the trouble Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Alison Grimes has gotten herself into by refusing to say whether she had voted for Barack Obama, when anyone could guess she had — and all she has done is make people wonder if she’s too slippery to give a straight answer.)

As Bartels noted, Gardner seconded the nomination of former Fort Collins Mayor Susan Kirkpatrick in 1998 at the Democratic 4th Congressional District Assembly. Did he not vote for her? And then there’s this: As a Democrat for eight years, did Gardner vote a straight non-Democratic ticket in election after election?

Hey, I don’t know the answers. I’m just hoping that someone has the chance to ask him the follow-up question.

Littwin: It’s bigger than personhood, Mr. Gardner

gardner

 
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the prime-time 9News Senate debate, which was broadcast on Channel 20, actually got a decent audience (I doubt it, but let’s say it anyway).

If people were watching — hey, it was the last Senate debate of the season and what else were you doing at 7 on a Wednesday night? — what did they see?

It’s a harder question to answer than you’d think, which gets at the heart of the problem. Let’s take the first question of the debate — on Ebola. It’s a question ripped from the headlines, as they say. And since the crisis is still moving, the candidates haven’t had time to polish their responses.

More than that, the Ebola crisis doesn’t seem to fit the standard liberal-conservative model. It’s not abortion or birth control or immigration or taxes or ISIS or Iran or minimum wage or paycheck equity or entitlement reform or climate change or Harry Reid or Ted Cruz. As Mark Udall said, the virus is the enemy. Doesn’t everyone agree on at least that much?

The issue has always not only been about women’s choice, but also about Gardner’s judgment and character. And on Wednesday, Gardner dodged and feinted again, of course.

OK, you know better.

Udall went first. He said he had gotten a briefing that day from the Centers for Disease Control, but Udall didn’t have much specific to add, except to say we should focus on the problem and listen to the experts. And, he said, the experts at the CDC were on the case — and, in a pre-emptive move against Gardner, added that senators and congressmen weren’t in a very good position to judge.

Gardner countered by saying basically that he was in great position to judge — and that we should immediately ban travel to the United States from those West African countries most affected. He blamed Barack Obama for having no strategy, as if he were talking about war in Iraq or Syria. In fact, the tone was pretty much the same. It was spoken with the 99 percent certainty that Obama must be wrong, whatever position he takes.

And then the moderators asked Gardner what expertise he had used to determine his position because, as it happens, most experts think a travel ban would be counterproductive. Gardner responded by saying that polls showed most people agreed with him. Udall, meanwhile, ripped Gardner for a vote that would have cut $700 million from the CDC. Gardner said he was voting against Jazzercise and that, besides, Udall had voted with Obama a lot of the time.

So, what do you think?

Does it matter that Gardner thinks the wisdom here can be found in the majority?

Does it matter that Udall had access to top people at the CDC, but didn’t have much specific to offer?

Does it matter that the co-moderators – Kyle Clark and Brandon Rittiman – jumped a candidate when he gave an unsupported answer? (This was speed-debating. Clark and Rittiman sped up the tempo, cut off answers that were going nowhere, tried to force tough answers to tough questions, got almost nowhere anyway, but still provided a good hour’s worth of entertainment.)

And the strange thing is, the Ebola argument, even if it didn’t offer much, was illuminating. It showed us Republican-congressman thinking vs. Democratic-senator thinking, and, depending how you see it, it should offer a strong hint about how you should vote.

I mean, what’s the real question here? Udall’s a mainstream Democrat. Gardner is a down-the-line conservative Republican. If Gardner wins, Republicans will almost certainly control the Senate. If Udall wins, Democrats may well hang on. That’s pretty much it. Don’t listen to editorials suggesting Gardner would be a moderating force in the Senate. He’d be a reliable soldier, just like he is in the House. If Udall loses, the Senate would lose a strong voice on privacy and also a reliable vote for liberal causes. But mostly, the race is about whose side you’re on.

Or is it?

The headlines in the debate came from the moderators, just as they did in the Denver Post debate. Rittiman asked Udall to name an Obama policy he’d be likely to oppose over the next two years. Udall wouldn’t, or couldn’t, name one. And Clark put a large dent into the Gardner smile on personhood. Clark said there was no debate about whether the House bill that Gardner co-sponsors is a personhood bill that would ban abortion and many kinds of birth control — and that Gardner is the only one who says otherwise. Clark said he wasn’t going to “debate” the question because it was a “fact.” And then he hit Gardner with a little more than a jab.

“Let’s talk about what that entire episode may say about your judgment more broadly,” Clark said. “A charitable interpretation would be that you have a difficult time admitting when you’re wrong and a less charitable interpretation would be that you’re not telling us the truth.”

The Denver Post, in its surprise endorsement of Gardner, said Udall was “obnoxious” to keep hitting Gardner on women’s reproductive rights in ad after campaign ad. Gardner, suddenly a big fan of the media, mentioned the Post in the debate more often than he mentioned the 99 percent.

And now Clark suggests, in a remarkably aggressive question, that the issue is not only about women’s choice, but about Gardner’s judgment and character. Gardner dodged and feinted in response, of course.

Is Clark right? Is the Post right?

The race might be decided on whether — after the fifth and apparently final meeting between Udall and Gardner — you think the question is still debatable.

Littwin: Raucous Pueblo crowd wins U.S. Senate debate

crowd shot

 
PUEBLO — It was the best debate of the season, which says something about Pueblo, something about the raucous crowd, something about the moderator and something not so great about the contestants.

What the debate did mostly, though, was to serve as a sad reminder of how relentlessly boring and issue-deficient this Senate campaign has been.

The stakes are so high — the race could decide which party controls the Senate — and yet the volume on so many of the critical issues has been turned down so low. The only sound you can really hear is that constant screeching noise from the endless round of 30-second campaign ads.

What made this debate different was the real enthusiasm and excitement, two words almost entirely missing from the campaign. The energy came from the crowd.

There were no headlines from the debate. There was little new said by either Mark Udall or Cory Gardner, other than Gardner joining the knee-jerk, ban-flights-from-Ebola-infected-countries crowd. It was still mostly personhood (we get it) vs. 99 percent (we get that, too) — and a lot of blame for past votes and very little about what to do next (Gardner has his Four Corners plan, which he touts endlessly and never explains and which, after this campaign season, will never be heard from again).

What made the debate different — this would be the third time Udall and Gardner had debated this week — was the evening’s real enthusiasm and excitement, two words almost entirely missing from the campaign.

The energy came from the crowd. The moderator, Pueblo Chieftain managing editor Steve Henson, mostly got out of the way and and let the candidates have at each other, which they did. It made for fun; it didn’t make for the depth of debate you’d hope for. But I’ll take fun at this point.

And the crowd was encouraged to, well, engage. Politics in Colorado are — how can you say it politely? — basically, yes, polite. And if you’re rude (see: Schaffer, Bob; Tancredo, Tom), you get punished for it. But in this case, the candidates were just following the lead of the crowd, which couldn’t get enough.

It sounded more like a football game than a debate. There was everything but tailgating, and that was probably because of the rain. There was competitive name-chanting before the debate began. When the candidates took the stage, they got rock-star cheers, even though there would be no singing. There were more Republicans than Democrats on hand, and the moderator had to admonish the crowd when they were booing over Udall’s turn to talk — Henson said the crowd was “embarrassing” itself — but both candidates caught the fever in the room.

If it didn’t make for better arguments, it did make for better theater, like Udall slamming Gardner for voting to cut $300 million from the Center for Disease Control and Gardner responding that the CDC was spending the money on Jazzercise. This came to whooping from both sides of the hall. When was the last time you heard cheering for Jazzercize?

And though both candidates were more energized than I’d seen them, the rise in temperature worked in Gardner’s favor. Gardner had been humiliated in Tuesday’s Denver Post debate by the moderators for dodging questions. It has become a central issue in the campaign, and Gardner is flirting with that place where dodging equals slick and slick equals untrustworthy.

Republicans have wasted the real Cory Gardner. He is running as a generic Republican, dodging stands on social issues and calling for government to get out of the way. It might as well be Bob Beauprez running. Gardner is smart and charismatic — despite the fact that he actually used the line that Udall and Obama were both five-letter words — and has the ability to charm. Instead, he’s going to editorial board meetings at, say, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, and seeing them turn into heated arguments about why Gardner won’t answer the question of how, on one hand, he could disavow state personhood and how, on the other, he could still support federal personhood. If there were a third hand, it would be how Gardner can deny that the two personhoods are the same thing.

In this debate, Gardner seemed to have two goals: The first was not to be trapped into being called a dodger again. And because the debate was so free form, he was able to feint consistently without anyone effectively calling him on it. In fact — and this was the second goal — he worked hard to put the onus on Udall, throwing questions his way that he would prefer to dodge.

Udall had a goal, too, which was to counter the 99 percent, voting-with-Obama number. In this hyper-partisan world, I’d guess that nearly all senators are in the 90-plus range on one side or the other. But Udall hit back hard with his own number, which he has used before but never so consistently — about Gardner being rated by the National Journal last year as the 10th most conservative member in the very conservative House. As Udall pointed out, Tancredo never cracked the top 50.

It was numbers vs. numbers and old arguments vs. old arguments and zingers vs. zingers, and the only thing that will be remembered by voters from this week’s three debates — there’s one more next week — is Gardner getting called out by the Denver Post. But I’ll remember the Pueblo crowd. It made me feel like cheering from the press box.

[Wikimedia Moses Namkung crowd photo not taken at the Pueblo debate!]

Littwin: The Gardner and the woodshed

gardnersmile

 
A funny thing happened at the latest U.S. Senate debate. Cory Gardner got lectured. He got scolded. He got taken to the proverbial (whatever that actually means) woodshed.

And here’s the funny/strange part: It wasn’t Mark Udall who took him there. It was Denver Post politics editor and co-moderator Chuck Plunkett.

You see a lot of strange things happen at debates. That’s why you have to watch, particularly these days when access to candidates is so limited. It’s all non-stop, non-informative 30-second TV ads and last-minute-announced campaign stops and private events designed to keep the opposition trackers away.

And even though the participants try to stick to scripted answers at debates, these things are live, and the candidates get caught off guard. One day it’s John Hickenlooper at the Chamber debate saying pot voters were “reckless” and the next, in a yes/no lightning round, Mark Udall is saying “no” when asked if he would change anything about TABOR. All you can do is shake your head.

All candidates try to dodge the hard questions. Everyone knows that’s part of the game. But Gardner has a problem, and it’s starting to show.

But the real news came early in the Denver Post debate when Plunkett asked Gardner why he wouldn’t reveal the details about the differences between his famously canceled health care plan and his new one under Obamacare. Of course Gardner dodged the question and started talking about Udall and Obamacare and broken promises instead.

Plunkett listened to the non-answer and then asked: “Would you like to answer the specific question?” Of course, he wouldn’t. Gardner gave another non-answer. And then came the Plunkett headliner:

“Sometimes,” he said, “if a candidate doesn’t answer a question, that tells you something about the candidate.”

Yes, it does.

Plunkett didn’t call out Gardner by name. He didn’t have to. All candidates try to dodge the hard questions. Udall dodged when asked how he’d rate Barack Obama’s job. Neither Gardner nor Udall answered the question about “boots on the ground” in Syria. Udall wouldn’t say why he was absent from committee hearings. Gardner wouldn’t answer yes/no on climate change. Udall had to hedge on Keystone.

Everyone knows that’s part of the game, like doing 39 in a 35. You don’t expect to get a ticket. But Gardner has now been pulled over by Eli Stokols, the leading political TV reporter in town, and by Plunkett, who edits the political coverage for the Post. Gardner has a problem, and it’s starting to show.

Last week, Gardner sat down for 30 minutes on KDVR’s Sunday morning talk show and wouldn’t answer Stokols’ questions on personhood or his Obamacare cancellation. Stokols went at him repeatedly. It wasn’t a revelation that Gardner would dodge. What was surprising was that Stokols wouldn’t let go. Usually even the best reporters give up and move on when they’re being filibustered.

Gardner has a few key questions for which he has no good answers. And both are of his own making. Everyone knows about his personhood problem – and how when he made his surprise entry into the Senate race, he disavowed his previous (and very public) support for the very unpopular proposed Colorado personhood amendments. But for some reason, he remained a co-sponsor of a House bill — the Life Begins at Conception Act — that is known by everyone, except Gardner, as federal personhood. In his interview with Stokols, he said four times that there was no such thing as federal personhood – an answer that, let’s say, didn’t work. In fact, it was a disaster.

At the Denver Post debate, Gardner tried a new non-answer — that the bill was simply a “statement that I support life,” as if it were less a bill and more a pillow-style sampler.

The other question, of course, is the insurance cancellation letter, which Gardner used to keep in his jacket pocket, where it was handy if he needed to wave it in someone’s face. But the longer he doesn’t give details, the more it becomes like his personal long-form birth certificate.

The problem on personhood for Gardner is that most of the campaign is Udall railing about Gardner and personhood and abortion and birth control versus Gardner saying that Udall voted with Obama 99 percent of the time. The 99 percent is a good number for Gardner, and it fits neatly with the accompanying anti-Obamacare message, which would be stronger if Gardner would release that cancellation letter.

In the debate, there was a candidate-to-candidate question period. Gardner asked Udall about missed committee hearings and the fact that women in his Senate office aren’t paid as well as the men. Udall dodged the first and had a good answer — about real paycheck inequality — to the second. Udall asked Gardner what would happen if the Life Begins at Conception bill became law. Gardner didn’t answer the, uh, specific question. Udall then asked how Gardner would vote if he were in the Senate and the bill came to a vote. Same thing.

On Thursday, Udall and Gardner meet again, for the third debate in four days. This one is in Pueblo, where the crowd will be encouraged to participate. If it’s like the recent Hickenlooper-Beauprez debate there, it will be raucous. And if questions are dodged, the crowd will respond with loud jeering. Just so everyone knows.

love wins

 
I think the first time I wrote that it was definitely all over on gay marriage was the day that Antonin Scalia wrote grudgingly, and as a warning, that it would soon be all over on gay marriage.

Or it might have been the night Frank McNulty blocked civil unions at the state legislature, when I said something like he was standing in the way of — and would soon be run over by — that old history train.

I know I wrote it when Hillary Hall, the Boulder clerk and recorder, turned plucky hero and began issuing marriage licenses after deciding that a 10th Circuit ruling gave her the moral and constitutional authority to do so.

Or, well, you get the idea. We’ve known for a while that the day was coming eventually. We’ve known for a shorter while that the day was coming imminently.

The story is amazing. A moral issue turns into a fairness issue. A fairness issue becomes a generational issue. A generational issues becomes a familiarity issue.

Now we know this is the day in Colorado — and for a majority of Americans. On Oct. 6, 2014, the Supreme Court decided the issue by not deciding the issue. They decided not to hear appeals of a long series of Appeals Court decisions making bans of same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Court observers were stunned that the justices gave the issue a pass. But nobody could mistake their intent.

The justices did nothing, which meant everything, and will soon — as soon as a few legalisms are set right — mean same-sex marriage will be legal everywhere in Colorado. (Pueblo clerk Bo Ortiz is already issuing licenses. Attorney General John Suthers, who has lost and appealed in case after Colorado case, now says he will ask all courts that have issued stays on pro-marriage decisions to lift them. Suthers was the last line of defense, and now he has surrendered. All that’s left is the signing of the papers and the handing over of the sword.)

I hadn’t yet moved here in 1992 when Colorado had its moment of shame as the Hate State. I live here now, though, when House Speaker Mark Ferrandino writes in a fundraising letter that LOVE WINS! and paints the House Majority logo in rainbow colors.

Ferrandino told me Monday that he first gave thought to same-sex marriage just after college when he was in his first serious relationship and he knew that, as a gay man, he could not be married. It was a time when gay marriage was a major story — because state after state – including Colorado in 2004 — put one-man-one-woman marriage language into their constitutions. It was one of the infamous wedge issues designed to get Republicans to the polls, and some think it played a key role in getting George W. Bush re-elected.

That’s all history now. And what’s incredible is that history moved so quickly, so quickly and so thoroughly that it could now be a wedge issue for Democrats.

“Four years ago,” Ferrandino said, “we were a long way from marriage. We were fighting to get civil unions, and we were losing. It took three years, and I was so proud to be the speaker when it happened.

“And now, in half the time, a year and a half later, we have marriage equality. It’s amazing.”

The story is amazing. A moral issue — what Scalia still calls “homosexual sodomy” — turns into a fairness issue. A fairness issue becomes a generational issue. A generational issues becomes a familiarity issue. More people come out, some of whom play in the NBA or get drafted by the NFL, and more people see the absurdity of the idea that someone’s marriage has anything to do with your marriage. Gays and lesbians are now the people next door, the neighbor down the block, the people we work with. And here we are.

Two years ago, five states and the District of Columbia had same-sex marriage. After the non-ruling Monday, the number rose to 26 states. Five more states, including Colorado, will join that group quite soon. Nearly 60 percent of Americans will live in states where gay couples enjoy basic civil rights, with many more to come.

No civil rights movement has ever moved with this kind of speed. In 1996, the Gallup poll showed Americans opposing gay marriage by a 68-27 margin. Now, more than half the country supports it. In some polls, it’s high as 60 percent. Among Republicans under the age of 30, the Pew poll has it at 61 percent.

Is it over? Of course it’s over on gay marriage. Some day the Supreme Court will make its ruling, and that will be that for all 50 states.

And, of course, it’s not over. There are fights at the margins, which aren’t really the margins. Someday gays will be a protected group everywhere, becoming just one more group that has faced discrimination from, say, bigoted bakers. Someday, and probably soon, the so-called “religious freedom” laws will be seen in the same way as the anti-gay marriage laws are seen now. The momentum is so great that gay rights, against all odds, will probably be the legacy of the conservative Roberts Court.

This was a day that we’ve known for a while was going to come. Now we know, finally, that the day has arrived.