During the Pennsylvania Senate debate on Wednesday night, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak each tried to paint the other as too extreme to represent the Keystone state. Both candidates came well-armed with their talking points and were fairly well-matched rhetorically. Toomey was businesslike and bland, while Sestak spoke in hushed "more-in-sadness-than-in-anger" tones, with the occasional flash of indignation.
Sestak portrayed himself as an advocate of “we the people, not we the marketplace or the corporation,” and said Toomey would hand Social Security over to Wall Street. Toomey wasn’t shy about reforming Social Security for younger workers, and painted Sestak as a far-left tax-and-spend liberal. Rattling off a list of all the liberal agenda items Sestak supported, Toomey said: “Joe’s voted for all the bailouts, the nationalizing of whole industries, the staggering spending, the stimulus, cap-and-trade, card-check, government-run health care. In each case, Joe distanced himself from the mainstream of Congress and said these things should go further.”
Sestak said at one point that Toomey "sounds like my parrot at home -- again and again, offering no solutions.”
It wasn’t a surprise to see Toomey, former head of the Club for Growth, rail against corrupt and wasteful earmarks, but it was a bit surreal to see both candidates running for appropriator Arlen Specter’s Senate seat swear off pork. “I’m the only congressman up here with a piece of legislation to end earmarks,” Sestak said.
When the debate turned to foreign policy, Sestak, a former admiral in the Navy who was fired in 2005 by then-Navy secretary Mike Mullen, burnished his credentials as “the most senior officer ever elected to Congress.” When Toomey said it is “extremely dangerous for us to leave precipitously” from Afghanistan in July 2011, Sestak shot back: “I have not supported that deadline at all.”
Sestak criticized Toomey for voting for the Iraq war, but tried to sound hawkish on Iran, saying that the “military option should never be taken off the table, but it should be at the back of the table.” He said a military strike is the “last option I would support … but we are far from that period right now.”
“I think it is unacceptable for the United States to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran," Toomey replied. "This is a very, very dangerous regime. It’s a serious security threat to the United States. And it is an existential threat to our good friend and ally Israel.”
Toomey then said that Sestak had shown his hostility toward Israel by “speaking to an organization that embraces Hamas,” a reference to Sestak's speech at a Council on America-Islamic Relations fundraiser, and aligning “himself with that small, very extreme element of the House that is least friendly to Israel, that is in fact, in some ways, hostile to Israel, that urged the administration to pressure the Israeli government to ease the blockade of Gaza. A very big mistake.” Sestak replied that he was tough on Iran sanctions and favored designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorists.
The debate may have become most heated when the candidates fought over civilian trials for enemy combatants. Toomey said:
An example of just how extreme Joe Sestak is. My view is when we capture an enemy combatant—a foreign terrorist caught on foreign soil trying to kill Americans—we should give that person a military trial in a military tribunal on a military base. Joe Sestak is about all alone among any elected official in Pennsylvania, who believes that even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of 9/11, should be given a civilian trial, including here in Pennsylvania. Joe’s been adamant about that. I think that is extremely irresponsible, it's dangerous, and it’s a compromise to our security.
After pointing out that he was at the Pentagon on 9/11, Sestak grew indignant and said: “The fact that those criminals are still sitting down there is the Supreme Court said we could not bring them to justice. I want them brought to justice in Washington D.C. where they killed my friends. George Bush brought in 200 terrorists to be tried here in America. I defended those laws. They’re strong enough to do it. I want them put to death for what they did.”
Toomey said the trials would be a “security risk” and a “circus.” But worse than that, he continued, “in a civilian trial the prosecution is required to disclose to the defense its methods, its information, where it got it, and what it knows. I don’t think we’re under any obligation to help our enemies kill Americans.”
“That’s not true,” Sestak shot back, accusing Toomey of cynically trumping up the issue. “Courts do not have to reveal that. In fact George Bush tried 200 terrorists here. 200 of them! And he never spoke up.” As former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, that figure for foreign terrorists tried in the U.S. is nowhere near correct.
When the candidates discussed abortion, Toomey said that, like Pennsylvania Democratic senator Bob Casey and a majority of the state's congressional delegation, he is pro-life and thinks Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. “Joe Sestak’s the one who’s extreme on this issue," Toomey said. "He’s in the fringe of members—very liberal—who believe in taxpayer funded abortion on demand, and no restrictions at all.”
Though he voted for the abortion-funding health care bill, Sestak disputed Toomey's characterization of his position on federal funding of abortion, and used the topic as an opening to link Toomey to Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell. “Palin, Toomey, O'Donnell, they all would like to overturn Roe versus Wade,” Sestak said.
“I think there’s even more of an extreme taken by Congressman Toomey taken on such social issues,” Sestak added before spitting out the most outlandish claim of the night. "Congressman Toomey actually opposes protecting a victim of hate crimes," he said.
Toomey opposes hate crimes legislation, but rest assured that he supports prosecuting criminals and protecting victims. "I think it’s a bad idea for the government to legislate what they think people are thinking -- what’s in person’s heart or mind when a crime’s being done," Toomey said in 2004. "And they should be vigorously prosecuted."