South Carolina Rep. John Spratt, a 28-year Democratic incumbent fighting for his political life, squared off against his challenger, Republican state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, Tuesday night, and health care — not the economy or immigration — was the issue that divided the candidates most deeply.
The debate, held at an upscale country club in Lake Wylie, S.C., and hosted by the Lions Club, was remarkably low-key in appearance, but the election itself has important national implications. About 200 people attended and dined on chopped house salads, herb and mustard roasted strip loin entrees and chocolate silk tart desserts. Wine, beer and soda accompanied the meal. No television cameras were allowed at the request of the Spratt campaign.
The debate touched on a number of issues, including immigration, the federal deficit and energy. Although no questions were asked specifically about health care, Mulvaney highlighted Spratt’s vote for the Affordable Care Act as one of the main reasons the incumbent should be voted out.
“There was a time when my congressman would have been the one to stand up to Nancy Pelosi on health care and say, ‘no, I’ve gone with you on other things, but I’m not going with you on this,’” Mulvaney said in his closing remarks. “He was in the right place at the right time on the right issue to make a real difference for the people in South Carolina. There was a time when he would have led the charge against what was happening in Washington, but those times have changed.”
Spratt, on the other hand, defended his vote for health care reform as “the right thing” but added that much about the bill needs to be changed. He said he believes he did not go against the wishes of his district in supporting the bill, though he recognized the considerable opposition to the bill.
“The bill is easy of complexities, and it’s easy to find fault with a bill like this,” Spratt told a handful of reporters at an informal press conference after the debate. “I’m convinced that before it’s operative law, there will be a number of changes in it to make it more accommodating, particularly to small businesses.”
“He’s had the chance to change it,” Mulvaney said. “He was the budget chairman. People forget that he was the primary sponsor of this bill. This is his bill.”
The debate demonstrated how health care, now out of the news cycle, is nevertheless affecting the midterm elections and is still on the minds of many voters.
Spratt, who was the sole sponsor of the reconciliation version of the bill and faced a hostile crowd at a town hall meeting last August, denied that he voted for the health care reform bill because of his position in the Democratic leadership, as House Budget Committee chairman.
“I wouldn’t cast a vote of that magnitude and importance on the basis of what the leadership has decided. Not by any means,” he said.
Mulvaney said that repealing the health care bill should be the “biggest priority when we go back in January” and wants to make it the main issue of 2012 presidential elections.
“Let’s talk about this at a national election, at a national level,” he said. “It’s not just about health care. It’s about jobs, it’s about spending.”
Mulvaney predicted that the U.S. House of Representatives will pass a repeal bill that will either die in the Senate or be vetoed by President Obama. He further suggested trying to block funding for the bill and preventing the regulations from becoming law, a tactic argued for by other opponents of the Obama administration’s agenda.
Spratt also highlighted that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has projected that the bill would provide a budget surplus over the first ten years but acknowledged the surplus may still be in doubt.
“That may or may not happen, but those are the projections from CBO,” he said.
Spratt cited that the bill will give coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, allow young people to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26 and prevent companies from hiking premiums after a customer’s major illness.
“As you delve into this package, you find some things that clearly everybody, almost everybody likes, appreciates and thinks is good policy,” said Spratt, who in March announced he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.
At the same time, he acknowledged that some aspects of the bill should be implemented ahead of schedule to ensure that the policies are effective.
“I’d like to see some of these things implemented ahead of time so that we can find out how well they work,” he said. “It would be difficult to go back and start over again. In time, as different problems are noted, I think there will be a movement to go back and make some perfective changes.”
The crowd was decidedly more supportive of Mulvaney, offering tepid applause at Spratt’s comments and loud cheers for Mulvaney’s comments.
The debate also demonstrated how Spratt has chosen to highlight his experience as a legislator as an asset, unlike some of his Democratic colleagues.
“These times call for leaders who are seasoned and experienced,” Spratt said in his opening statement. “I have a record to prove that I can bring people together. I’ve put my seniority to work.”
Mulvaney and the state Republican party have sought to portray Spratt as out of touch with the voters who sent him to Washington, D.C., and Tuesday night was no different.
“He voted for the bailouts, for cap and trade and for health care, and it’s completely out of line with the principles that we share in the 5th congressional district,” Mulvaney said. “The only reason I’m in the race is because of his voting record.”