Answer the questions: U.S. Senate debate highlights politics of the non-answer

DENVER — Statements humming with talking points came at a furious clip, but answers to questions trickled out sideways or not at all on Tuesday night when U.S. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall faced off against Colorado Republican Congressman Cory Gardner in a debate hosted by The Denver Post.

Udall dodged accusations that he missed emerging national security subcommittee hearings. He merely said he has never missed hearings in the two related main committees he is a member of — the House Armed Services and the Intelligence committees. He also hedged when asked whether he supported construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. He said more research needed to be completed on the pipeline and the massive extraction project.

Gardner, though, had more topics to dance around, and his smile-wide-and-pivot-fast interview technique is now becoming the story of the race.

Last week in a Sunday morning one-on-one interview with KDVR TV’s Eli Stokols, Gardner ducked and nodded and bobbed and weaved, talking around two direct questions for more than 20 minutes, which in television time seemed to stretch out like a decade. On Tuesday, The Denver Post’s Chuck Plunkett and Lynn Bartels tried and failed the same way Stokols had tried and failed to force Gardner to clarify the difference between the hardline anti-abortion personhood proposal he opposes in Colorado and the one he supports in Washington DC. They also couldn’t pry out of the Gardner details about the health insurance policy he says was cancelled “due to Obamacare” and the one he purchased on the state’s new exchange to replace it — a new policy he says is more expensive and that provides less coverage than the one that was cancelled.

“While you’ve been quick to wave your cancellation letter around and criticize Obamacare, you’ve redacted portions… Why the secrecy?” Plunkett asked.

Gardner didn’t say. Instead, he talked, as he has often for a year, about how he and his family opted not to enroll in congressional health coverage so they could be in the same boat as their constituents. He criticized Udall for supporting Obamacare. He repeated the fact that 340,000 Coloradans on the individual market received cancellation letters. He said the country needs healthcare solutions. He said Udall “promised that if you liked your healthcare plan, you could keep it…” and that what we got instead was “broken promise after broken promise.”

Plunkett tried again.

“We wanted to try and get a specific answer to the question,” he said. The crowd erupted in laughter. “Why redact the information about the plan your family was enrolled in?”

“Because we found a solution and an insurance policy that we liked, that our family liked,” said Gardner. “The same kind of solution that 340,000 other Coloradans found. 340,000 other Coloradans found a healthcare plan that they liked. What Senator Udall promised was that if you liked your healthcare plan, you could keep it — and what Senator Udall wants to do is say this –“

Plunkett interrupted. “If you want to answer the specific question, we have a little more time.”

“Well, I’m happy to debate the failure of Obamacare for this entire hour,” said Gardner.

The stage then filled with crosstalk.

“We wanted you to answer a specific question,” said Bartels through the back and forth.

“Every now and then we ask a follow up question if we didn’t think a question was answered,” Plunkett explained, looking to move the debate back on track. “That’s our prerogative. And if sometimes the candidate doesn’t answer a question that also says something about the candidate that the voters should know.”

The Denver Post is the paper of record in Colorado. It takes something for the old-school journalists at the paper asking questions of candidates at a debate to become part of the story of the campaigns. Yet it happened again 20 minutes later when a similar exchange unfolded in the “yes or no” portion of the debate.

“These questions are meant to be answered yes or no because they should come from a core belief that you hold,” Plunkett was forced to explain when Gardner would not give a one-word answer about whether he believes humans are contributing significantly to climate change.

Gardner, who receives the lion’s share of his campaign money from the oil and gas industry and routinely has questioned climate change science, talked over the moderators. The crowd hissed. The moderators pushed back.

“Well, I’ve said all along the climate is changing,” Gardner said. It was not a yes or no answer. Gardner had no intention of giving one and he never did.

“Congressman, at the end of the yes or no questions you will be given a minute to respond to any one of them,” said Bartels.

“These are important issues that should be addressed seriously,” Gardner said, when it came time to expand. “Yes, the climate is changing, I’ve said that all along. I disagree to the extent that man is causing it and I refuse to destroy our economy like Senator Udall would in order to pursue some radical ideas that his top supporters like Tom Steyer are in favor of.”

Steyer is the California billionaire who this year is supporting candidates that he believes will take action to address climate change. He is the counterpart to oil magnates Charles and David Koch, who have financed a national messaging industry to advocate for fossil fuels, play down climate change science and slow alternative energy development. The Koch brothers’ organizations, including Americans for Prosperity, are spending heavily to support Gardner this year.

Throughout the debate the candidates sparred on the same set of topics that for months have shaped the race, one of the tightest in the nation and one of a handful of contests that will determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress next year.

Udall jabbed at Gardner for compiling a legislative record stacked with votes against women’s rights, gay rights, clean energy and immigration reform. Udall said Gardner’s positions were “radical” and “extreme.” He said they were out of step with Colorado constituents and part of the ideologically rigid partisanship that has gummed up the lawmaking process on Capitol Hill and gridlocked Washington.

To make his point, Udall referred more than once to the effort to secure natural disaster federal funding in the wake of the historic rains that flooded Front Range Colorado last September. The efforts were hampered when House Republicans, including Gardner, in a failed effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, shut down the federal government, freezing government employees, including members of the National Guard and Park Service workers.

“Congressman you politicized the situation,” Udall said, describing a trip they took together to survey devastated stretches of the state. “We rode on a helicopter. We were unified. You got off that helicopter and we headed back to Washington, DC, with a focus on providing relief and support for the people of Colorado. I don’t know what happened on that plane ride, but when you got off that plane in Washington, you took a whole different approach. I don’t know whether it was the Tea Party, or your ideology, or what took hold, but you voted to shut down the government, and the effects were real.”

Gardner hit back at Udall by tying him to the President, arguing that it was Udall whose work in the Senate was guided by partisan loyalty.

“You have voted 99 percent of the time with Barack Obama in support of his failed policies,” Gardner said. He repeated the line throughout the debate — so much so, that by the end of the hour, the audience tittered each time he said it.

Gardner also continued his attacks on Udall for supporting the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare has been the centerpiece of Gardner’s campaign.

“You said we could keep our doctors,” he said. “You said that if we liked our plan, we could keep it. You didn’t say if I liked your plan, you could keep it.”

Gardner defended his support for the personhood bill in Congress by saying it was “simply a statement that I support life.”

After the debate, former Denver Mayor and member of President Clinton’s cabinet Federico Peña was appalled by that answer.

“That’s legislation he has sponsored. It’s a bill. It’s not a statement. It would have real-world effects if it became law.”

The Senate candidates are scheduled to debate again in Pueblo on Thursday. Mail ballots go out to all Colorado voters next week.