By Alex Roarty
The first debate in the highly competitive congressional race between Republican Pat Meehan against Democrat Bryan Lentz featured an at-times testy, if never personal, back-and-forth between the two candidates over who has the best background and ideas to revitalize the country’s economy.
The debate, fewer than 30 minutes long, was taped Thursday morning and aired Sunday night on the Comcast Network’s “Larry Kane: Voice of Reason.” (Listen to the entire debate here.) It’s the first in a planned series of forums between the two men, each of whom is running to replace outgoing Democratic incumbent Joe Sestak in the 7th Congressional District.
A disagreement over extending tax cuts to those earning more than $250,000, a debate featured prominently in Washington recently, produced perhaps the night’s sharpest contrast. The Republican Meehan, an ex-U.S. attorney, was unequivocal that the cuts should continue for everyone, including those exceeding the threshold, arguing that not doing so could hurt private investment.
“They’re the folks who are going to make the investments,” he said. “We have $1.3 trillion in capital sitting on the sidelines, and we want to get those dollars invested to create real job opportunities.”
Lentz, a state lawmaker from Delaware County and former Army Ranger, argued that extending tax cuts for only those making less than $250,000 is the best way to stimulate the economy while reducing the country’s deficit.
“Giving (the middle class) tax cuts, they’ll put that money back into the economy,” the Democrat said. “They’ll purchase things and they’ll buy things for their families.”
Lentz used Meehan’s support for extending the cuts to link him to President George W. Bush, who signed them into law at the start of his presidency. The tax reductions are the single greatest contributor to the federal deficit, he said, and the fiscal imprudence of extending them is a move that mirrors the disastrous economic policies of the former GOP president.
“Pat is recycling ideas that were ideas of the Bush administration,” said Lentz. “Why would we want to go through that same course of action again?”
The Democrat repeatedly tried to link Meehan, who was appointed by Bush as the state’s eastern district U.S. attorney, to the former president.
Meehan, who earlier in the debate said the GOP lost a “little bit of a sense of fiscal accountability” during Bush’s time, shot back that Lentz’s history as a state representative shows he, like Democrats in Washington, wants only to increase spending.
“I take Bryan to task for the fact of having voted for a budget last year in that state of Pennsylvania that was a billion dollars higher than the year before,” he said.
Meehan, who was also a former Delaware County district attorney, is race’s favorite on the strength of his already high name recognition in the district and prodigious fundraising. A poll commissioned by his campaigned and released last month showed him beating Lentz by more than 20 points.
But Lentz’s campaign has set an aggressive tone for months, pinging its opponent in March for allegedly fraudulent signatures on his nominating petitions and hammering him for a widely panned press conference over the summer in Harrisburg when Meehan tried to link the Democrat to the state legislature’s corruption scandal “Bonusgate.”
It also nakedly assisted independent conservative candidate Jim Schneller in acquiring enough signatures to be placed on the ballot, a move that earned the campaign heat from local media but could still hurt Meehan at the polls on Nov. 2.
On Sunday, Lentz seemed to take every available opportunity to criticize the Republican. His sharpest critique might have come when he asked whether Meehan supported privatizing social security or Medicare, a line of attack that might have particular resonance for vote-happy senior citizens.
He lambasted the former prosecutor for courting and accepting support from tea party groups, which Lentz said have made it their goal to dismantle the two social programs.
“If you take the endorsement of the tea party, and speak at their rallies, and they say they want to privatize Social Security and privatize Medicare, I think people have a right to know whether you agree with the tea party or disagree with the tea party,” said Lentz.
Meehan, seeming to bristle at the suggestion he was a tea party candidate, shot back that accepting the support of those groups, which he says tout fiscal responsibility more than anything, doesn’t mean he subscribes to all of their views. He does not support changing the makeup of Social Security or Medicare, he said.
“That’s just factually inaccurate — I’m a Republican candidate,” he said.
The two men are set to debate once again later this week.