At last night's debate for Pennsylvania's special election to fill John Murtha's seat, Republican candidate Tim Burns concluded his opening remarks with a push for repeal of Obamacare. His remarks, echoing his new campaign ad on repeal, could easily be the script used by Republicans across the country this fall. The choice voters face, said Burns, is sending someone to Washington who supports "Nancy Pelosi's health care bill and someone who will go to Washington and fight to repeal it."
And let me be clear. If this bill stands, here's what it will mean to you. It means a half a trillion dollars of additional taxes. It means over 500 billion dollars in radical Medicare cuts. And it means taxpayer funded abortions.
So Mark, I ask you, if your interests truly lie with the people of this district, why don't you support repealing this bill?
It's a question Democratic candidate Mark Critz, an ex-Murtha staffer, never answered during the debate. In his own ads, Critz claims that he would have voted against the bill. When asked what his first priority would be when he got to Congress, Critz said (before pivoting to "jobs"):
One of the reasons that I had opposed the health care bill was that there’s a provision in it—it wasn’t in the bill—called the average wage index, the Medpac proposal. And without it our hospitals are in danger. This is something I would immediately, when I got to Congress, get to work on.
When asked by THE WEEKLY STANDARD after the debate why he would have voted against the bill but opposes repeal, Critz replied: "We try to fix what we have instead of going backwards." In other words, Critz obfuscates his stance on Obamacare: He was against creating it before he was for keeping it.
So voters might not have a clean choice between someone who voted for Obamacare, and someone who opposed it. But there will be plenty of races in the fall in which a Republican faces off against a Blue Dog who professes he'd oppose Pelosi's agenda. As Jay Cost has written, "If the Republican party is to retake the House of Representatives in November, it will have to expose these Democrats for what they are—Pelosi loyalists who say one thing on the campaign trail and then do another on Capitol Hill." Recent polls show Burns with a slim 3 to 6-point lead on Critz.
In this socially conservative district, Burns missed an opportunity last night to expose the emptiness of Critz's professed pro-life position. Burns said he firmly opposed abortion and described how his mother, who had him at 16, showed him the importance of affirming the right to life. Critz said that they had reached a "watershed" moment of agreement--he, too, was opposed to abortion and wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade. In the feel-good moment, Burns didn't use time for rebuttal and missed a chance to point out that Critz says Obamacare does not pay for elective abortions, when, in fact, it does.
Surprisingly, Critz endorsed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," saying that he deferred to the judgment of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mullen. Burns said he thought the policy was working, and repeal would be disruptive, especially during a time of war.
John Murtha was not a co-sponsor of the bill to repeal DADT. If Critz wins while supporting repeal, it could encourage other Democrats in other Republican-leaning districts to follow his lead. After the debate, Burns told me that Critz's position on DADT was "news to me," but was unsure if he'd emphasize it in the remaining two weeks of the race.
Though Critz, a businessman, denounced "bigger government, more intrusive government, more regulation, higher budgets," he spent plenty of debate time defending himself against claims that he is too economically conservative.
"I will not raise your taxes," Burns said directly after Critz hedged on a question about whether he'd ever vote to do so.
"I'm not going to raise any of your taxes, just his," Critz shot back while pointing a figure at the businessman Burns.
Critz went on to quote Burns as saying that he would "love to ultimately see the Fair Tax implemented." Critz described the Fair Tax as a 23 percent tax hike on the middle class. Burns replied that the quote was taken out of context, and that he had gone on to say that "I do not believe [the Fair Tax] is practical and I do not support it."
On earmarks, Burns said that he would "fight to create jobs in this district," but the process had to be "more open, transparent, and one that the American people can support."
"It’s pretty hard to say that bulletproof vests for the troops is wasteful spending," he said.
Burns seemed to be on firmer ground when attacking cap-and-trade and amnesty, and defending the right to a secret ballot in union elections. Critz said he would co-sponsor the Employee Free Choice Act, but opposed cap-and-trade and amnesty. Burns tried to cast doubt on Critz's claims of independence, saying that Nancy Pelosi "isn’t working so hard to get Mark Critz elected because he’s a nice person, which he is."
According to Burns, the race is about more than any single issue. It's not just a referendum on Obamacare, he told me after the debate, "it's a referendum on the Obama-Pelosi agenda."