Photo by Caleb Revill / MTSU Sidelines
U.S. Senate candidates Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn engaged in a heated battle of diverging ideologies where they disputed policy and their positions on key national issues during their first debate at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, Tuesday night.
Since the debate, many news organizations have noted the large amount of debate time the candidates used to criticize each other rather than discussing their own qualifications. Read the biggest takeaways from the clash below.
The calm after the storm
Prior to the debate at 6 p.m., Cumberland University resembled a battleground in preparation with supporters of both candidates divided into camps outside of both sides of the debate hall. Despite substantial rain followed by heavy humidity, supporters of both candidates continued to grow.
Supporters warmly greeted their respective candidates. Supporters of Blackburn wore bright red “Marsha” T-shirts, while Bredesen supporters wore navy blue “Phil Bredesen” T-shirts. Both groups carried signs.
This debate would mark the first of two planned debates for the candidates vying for the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Bob Corker. Corker, a Republican, has served as a U.S. senator from Tennessee since 2007.
Blackburn, a Republican, is running on core conservative values of increased border security, decreasing wasteful spending and protecting Second Amendment rights. Bredesen, a Democrat, is running on a more center-left approach with an emphasis on fixing health care, improving education and working across the aisle to reduce the growing national debt.
Both candidates say that they are proponents of improving the economy.
Both candidates could also be considered veterans of Tennessee politics. Bredesen served as the mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999. He then served as the governor of Tennessee from 2003 to 2011, when he had – until this Senate race – planned on retiring from politics.
Blackburn has served as the chair of the Williamson County Republican Party from 1989 to 1991. Later, she served as a member of the Tennessee Senate from 1999 to 2003. She has since served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Tennessee’s 7th district.
Scheduled to last an hour, the televised debate was tightly structured. Moderators alternated questions between the candidates. A short rebuttal time was also given.
The first question asked was what each candidate believed was the single most pressing issue facing Tennesseans and how they would address this issue as senator.
Blackburn got the first chance to answer a question about the single most pressing issue facing Tennesseans, and what she would do to address it as Senator.
“As I talk to Tennesseans around the state, the number one thing that they talk about is making certain that we keep the jobs and the economy growing as it is,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn explained that a healthy and growing economy is important to Tennesseans, especially in communities like in Scott County where communities are “advertising for people to come in” to fill increased job openings.
“I think the number one issue for Tennesseans today has got to be the overarching issue of how dysfunctional Washington has become,” Bredesen said.
Bredesen explained that many issues that affect Tennesseans are stalled due to a “lack of an ability for Washington to engage with issues” due to “hyper-partisan” politics.
He then spoke about his hopes for Washington to engage on issues in a less partisan way and focus on solutions for individual issues.
Throughout the debate, Blackburn insisted in several of her rebuttals that Bredesen would vote with Sen. Chuck Schumer if elected. She claimed that Bredesen’s campaign received monetary contributions from Schumer and that Bredesen would be indebted to vote with Schumer if elected.
To this point, Bredesen responded that he did not plan on voting with Schumer on every issue.
Tax cuts and the federal deficit
Both candidates were asked how they planned on addressing the federal deficit while also handling tax reform fairly.
“The idea of tax reform and tax cuts to go with it was a great idea,” Bredesen said. “But what happened when it got to Congress was the hard part … Nobody objects to a tax cut for the middle class, but you’ve got to do both sides of that equation to make it work and not drive the deficit up.”
Bredesen explained that the national debt is increasing as a result of current tax cut programs. He said that despite this, there are ways to address this issue by holding spending at a constant rate and letting revenues grow over time.
Blackburn answered next, saying that Bredesen “called Barack Obama a transformational leader.”
“It’s important to realize that (Obama) did transform our nation’s debt from $10 trillion to $21 trillion,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn then proposed the idea of a “balanced budget amendment” to address the deficit and balance the budget “without a tax increase.” Next, Blackburn said that there needs to be spending reductions and continued growth of the economy. She ended her response by claiming that Bredesen would vote with Schumer to take Tennessee’s tax cuts away.
Bredesen rebutted by recounting his experience as governor and “making very difficult decisions through very difficult years.” He spoke about some of the difficult decisions he had to make during the recession.
“The very first year I was (governor), we had to cut expenses 9 percent across the board, except for K-12 (schools),” Bredesen said. “What it takes to keep these things under control is not just talking about it … but the willingness to do the hard work and make the hard choices that I have done in the business world and as mayor and as governor to actually run the government in a way that you don’t need these taxes.”
Health care and the Affordable Care Act
Both candidates were asked what role the federal government should play in health care and what they would do to make certain that all Tennesseans have access to affordable health care.
“What we have seen happen in Tennessee, because of the Affordable Care Act, is that you have had 160,000 Tennesseans that can’t afford to buy health insurance, and they had to pay the penalty,” Blackburn said. “100,000 of those families had joint household incomes of $50,000 or less. The Affordable Care Act does not work.”
Blackburn then referenced Bredesen’s book “Fresh Medicine,” saying that in the book he claims to support a single payer government-run health care system.
Bredesen said that he criticized the Affordable Care Act when it was first proposed.
“When it passed, it became the law of the land,” Bredesen said. “What I said is, ‘What we (should) do now is support it and try to make it work.’ I think, first of all, this action that’s going on of people trying to actively sabotage it by modifying it in ways that make it more difficult to have it work is really unconscionable.”
Bredesen explained that 250,000 Tennesseans depend on the Affordable Care Act for their insurance. He continued to claim that Blackburn brags about how she has opposed and voted against the Affordable Care Act, which he said he thought was an example of what was wrong with congress.
“There’s something wrong – and it’s kind of what’s wrong with congress in a microcosm – (that) you’re (Blackburn) sitting up there, and for the last 16 years you’ve had a wonderful health care system fully paid by the federal government, which costs you nothing or very little. And in the meantime, you’re voting to take health care away from 250,000 Tennesseans with no idea of how to replace it with something else.”
Bredesen concluded by saying that this was being done for partisan reasons.
“It makes no sense. I’s nonsense,” Bredesen said.
Blackburn rebutted by saying that the Affordable Care Act has driven the cost of health insurance in Tennessee up 176 percent.
“We have Tennesseans in 16 counties that cannot even buy something that is ACA compliant,” Blackburn said. “What would be most beneficial to Tennesseans is to get the Affordable Care Act off the book (and) to open up the health insurance marketplace, to make certain that we have across state line purchase of health insurance. (This is) so that individuals can buy a product that suits their needs at a price that they can afford.”
Blackburn also explained that she wanted to be certain that rural hospitals and community health care centers would have access to high-speed internet.
Opioid crisis and medical marijuana
Both candidates were asked how they planned to address the opioid crisis and if they had any thoughts on legalizing medical marijuana.
Blackburn said that more resources for local law enforcement were needed to combat the opioid crisis.
“Right now, (local police) say the number one issue they’re dealing with is Fentanyl and Heroin,” Blackburn said. “Much of this is coming in from Mexico and Phil has said he opposes securing that southern border. Chuck Schumer, who has bought and paid for his campaign, will tell him, ‘Do not vote to secure that southern border.’ That is where those drugs are coming from.”
Bredesen responded by saying that he saw the opioid crisis as a “real human tragedy” in Tennessee. He then claimed that Blackburn was one of the “significant enablers of this problem.”
“When she went to Congress 16 years ago, she started to get very friendly with the big pharmaceutical companies,” Bredesen said. “They asked her, and she passed, the ‘stealth bill’ that basically took much of the enforcement ability (that) the DEA had to deal with these issues away.”
Bredesen cited the 60 Minutes report that “called out” Blackburn for this bill.
“And when you (Blackburn) were called out, you said ‘well, there were some unintended consequences, we’ll fix it,’” Bredesen said. “It’s years gone by and no fix has been in place. I can tell you, one of the first things that I’m going to do when I get (to Senate) is to file a bill to undo what (Blackburn) did two and a half, three years ago here (and) give law enforcement the ability to begin fighting this.”
Bredesen said that the issue was “way too important of an issue to de-fang law enforcement and its ability to deal with it.”
Blackburn responded in her rebuttal, saying that Bredesen’s comments on the ‘stealth bill’ was “false.”
“The bill was voted on and passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate,” Blackburn said. “Every bill dealing with opioids that has passed in the House and Senate has been a bipartisan piece of legislation.”
Blackburn explained that “prescribing limits work,” and that law enforcement needs more tools to combat opioid abuse.
Neither of the two candidates made a comment on the idea of legalizing medical marijuana during the debate.
Both candidates were allotted time at the end of the debate to make closing comments.
Blackburn noted the “significant differences” between her and Bredesen that were highlighted during the debate.
“I think that the viewers have had the opportunity to see some significant differences between Phil and I,” Blackburn said. “I am running to take your Tennessee values to Washington D.C. Phil has said he is running to end the dry spell for Democrats in Tennessee. He says he thinks that D.C. listens too much to voters. I think D.C. needs to listen more to voters, that’s what draining the swamp is about.”
Bredesen made his closing statement saying that he wants to get things moving in Washington again.
“If what the people of Tennessee want is more of that hard-nosed, partisan politics (where politicians) take no prisoners (and) make no compromises, I’m not your guy,” Bredesen said. “There’s another person on the stage here who has been in Washington for the last 16 years and shows it. (Blackburn) is very steeped in that political philosophy and, frankly, has gotten very good at it. But if what you want is someone who brings some experience from the business world (and) brings some experience from being mayor and governor and in particular brings an attitude of wanting to start making things happen … that’s what I want to do … if that’s what people want, I would like to represent them in Washington, and I’m applying for the job.”
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