The general thinking about political debates is that they have little impact unless one candidate makes a serious misstep, like Gerald Ford’s assertion in 1976 that Poland was not under Soviet control or everything Sarah Palin said in her debate against Joe Biden in 2008, and this first debate, between Governor Bullock and Greg Gianforte was little different. While both scored points with their supporters, there seemed to be little in the debate that would sway anyone undecided about either candidate. That being said, as the challenger, and one likely behind in the polls, Greg Gianforte needs to do more—and in this debate, he did little to broaden his appeal, unless there is an untapped cohort of voters who really enjoy angry, middle-aged men telling them what to think and repeatedly saying “entrepreneur” with the same fervor that Donald Trump talks about himself out there.
Gianforte’s plan for the debate was essentially the game plan he’s used for the campaign: tearing down Montana’s economy, business climate, and schools in a perverse effort to get people to vote for someone who will likely damage all three. His messaging swung between the two extremes of criticism of the state and an almost religious faith in the magical power of business to solve all of the state’s problems. And I think that’s at the heart of Gianforte’s messaging problem this campaign. While he keeps claiming to have a plan to grow Montana’s economy, he certainly doesn’t. Instead, it’s conservative bromides about regulation and tax burden, neither of which offer a concrete proposal for the state going forward.
On Public Lands/Access
This was a clear win for Governor Bullock, as Mr. Gianforte’s lawsuit against the state to block public access will be albatross that follows him for rest of the campaign. Once again, Gianforte claimed he didn’t file suit, which is patently false. He, through his attorney Art Wittich, absolutely did. But Gianforte didn’t stop there. Unwilling to admit his fault, he attacked the Fish, Wildlife and Parks officers who protect our public lands. People who believe in public lands don’t attack the officials who protect it, don’t place threatening signs trying to drive people away, and don’t use anti-public lands lawyers to defend their false claims.
Worse yet, he opened himself up to the best zinger in the debate, one that demonstrates Mr. Gianforte simply doesn’t understand how public access works. He extended two invitations to Governor Bullock to fish, prompting the Governor to remind Mr. Gianforte that he doesn’t need an invitation or permission. Public lands are public, whether they are easements or vast tracts of wilderness. That Mr. Gianforte simply cannot understand that this isn’t “his easement” makes it clear he doesn’t understand or support public lands.
On Jobs and the Economy
Most of the questions (and answers) in the debate centered around the state of Montana’s economy, which should be in Mr. Gianforte’s wheelhouse. Overall, though, Mr. Gianforte’s relentless negativity ran aground against the facts, that Montana has the fairest tax system in the nation, that our business climate is rated in the top ten, that we have record low unemployment, and our wage growth is in the top ten.
More importantly, though, Gianforte did let slip what his real priority would be as governor: protecting large corporations at the expense of Montanans.
- He lamented the struggle of poor Arch Coal, who paid the state for the right to mine, but never was able to produce a permit application that would have protected the water farmers and ranchers depend on.
- When asked how to protect the environment in Colstrip, with its wastewater leak, he argued for faster permits.
- He claimed that Montana’s business tax was “the most regressive he knows of,” even though the Billings Gazette noted that eliminating the existing business tax would give over $40 million dollars back to 12 companies, forcing the rest of us to come up with money for schools, roads, and infrastructure. It’s ironic that Mr. Gianforte doesn’t know what regressive means.
- When asked about the minimum wage, he said he cares more “about the maximum wage,” in perhaps the most honest moment of his campaign so far.
Gianforte swung a wild haymaker on the obligatory Second Amendment question, claiming that Governor Bullock could not be trusted on guns because he’s endorsed Hillary Clinton, who “wants to take away our guns.” Patently nonsensical. If there’s an element of conservative voters who still believe Democrats are after their guns after eight years of lies about the Obama Administration “coming after them,” I guess that was a winning line, but it’s a tired attack, especially from someone supporting Donald Trump for President.
Mr. Gianforte also exposed himself as an extremist on guns, criticizing Governor Bullock for six vetoes on guns bills. That means if elected, Mr. Gianforte would support the most extremist gun laws, ranging from not requiring any kind of permit for concealed carry and allowing students on college campuses to be armed. Montanans believe in the Second Amendment, but they certainly don’t believe in the reactionary view of the extremists Mr. Gianforte has aligned himself with.
On Syrian Refugees
After a truly horrible question linking the Orlando shooter to Syrian refugees from Fox’s Becky Hillier, Mr. Gianforte got the chance to pander a bit more, once again saying that he would block Syrian refugees from entering the state. What he failed to articulate today, as in the past, is how a governor would do that. There is no constitutional authority for a state to restrict movement or settlement between the states. As Governor Bullock pointed out, the only thing the state could do would be close resettlement offices, which would only make integration of refugees more difficult.
A terrible question that lead to another terrible answer from Mr. Gianforte, whose lip service of compassion for refugees seems not to extend past his misunderstanding of the Constitution.
Instead of pandering on Twitter, perhaps it’s time for Mr. Gianforte to explain just how he would block these refugees.
After another bizarre question, this one falsely claiming that Montana has only a 74% average daily attendance rate, Mr. Gianforte claimed that he is a “huge advocate for public education.” His record makes that claim patently false, as he has personally bankrolled a private school in Bozeman that has a discriminatory policy against students with disabilities and has been one of the leading funders of the anti-public school movement in Montana.
Returning to his theme that computers will solve all that ails Montana, he trotted out his already-retracted, constitutionally-impossible scheme to put computer science in every school in Montana, perhaps not caring or knowing that the Montana Digital Academy already offers computer science to every district and student in the state, free of charge.
On What Wasn’t Discussed
Mr. Gianforte was fortunate that the debate didn’t address other real issues that need to answered: his support for discriminatory policies, his dishonest campaign claims, his retrograde views on reproductive health, his support for the most reactionary members of the GOP caucus, and his connection to the law firm that wants to end Montana’s campaign finance regulations, just to name a few. Let’s hope that future debates move away from talking points and vague aspirations about the economy to more focused questions about those very serious concerns about how Mr. Gianforte’s worldview would affect his decision making as governor.