Debates are not sporting events, yet we tend to view them that way—witness Mitt Romney’s bounce in the polls since “winning” the first debate with President Obama. Last night, the first of three debates between U.S. Congressman Chris Gibson and Democratic challenger Julian Schreibman took place before hundreds of people in the auditorium of the M. Clifford Middle School in Lake Katrine, and Schreibman clearly outpointed Gibson. No knockout punches were thrown, but the challenger turned in the stronger performance.
Gibson and Schreibman in Lake Katrine. Photo: Tom Pletcher.
The debate was sponsored by the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters, and it covered a fair amount of ground. Written questions, submitted on index cards by members of the audience, formed the basis of several discrete segments on topics ranging from Medicare to the Middle East, from climate change to energy policy. Schreibman had Gibson on the defensive throughout—”on the ropes.” as it were—as the Congressman sought to distance himself from his conservative voting record, notably his vote in support of Paul Ryan’s budget plan.
There were some areas where the two candidates agreed. These included Middle East policy (unquestioning support for Israel), fracking (both view the process as hazardous) and, surprisingly, the Patriot Act—here, each man said the act had seriously eroded civil liberties; Gibson went so far as to call it unconstitutional. But these moments of agreement were relatively rare; the differences were more pronounced, and Mr. Schreibman defined and underscored these differences very effectively.
Nowhere did Gibson take more punches than on his vote for the Paul Ryan budget. They left him wobbly. Although the Medicare segment of the debate was relatively brief, Gibson kept reverting back to it after the debate had moved on to other topics, in an effort to defend himself. For example, he noted that he later voted for a somewhat obscure budget resolution based on the principles of a bipartisan deficit commission. (However, he didn’t say that this was after his Congressional district was redrawn and had become more Democratic.) Gibson also offered his Ryan budget vote as “an attempt to get the conversation going”.
Schreibman’s counterpunch landed solidly: “When you vote to end Medicare,” he said, “you’re not starting a conversation. You’re ending a conversation.”
And so it went throughout the evening. Gibson’s attempts to redefine himself as a moderate were consistently pushed aside by Schreibman, and this caused Gibson to become visibly agitated and strident. His gestures became more exaggerated, his voice rose in simulated fervor, and he repeatedly veered off into what he hoped would be distracting generalities. (“This is a great country! We can do anything!”) It didn’t really work—Gibson’s discomfort was obvious, and Schreibman maintained his cool throughout.
One of Gibson’s more desperate swings came when he accused Schreibman of being “divisive”. This, from a member of the most obstructive, do-nothing House in living memory. Schreibman countered strongly by hitting Gibson with Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks, and noted that Gibson’s support of the draconian Ryan budget reflected this bleak vision of the country. (By the way, Gibson has also sought to duck our petition asking him to renounce Romney’s remarks; he has never responded.)
There were a couple of points during the debate when Tea Party supporters in the audience booed while Schreibman landed solid blows against the Congressman. But for the most part, the audience seemed evenly divided, or even slightly pro-Schreibman. Certainly Schreibman received the louder ovation after his concluding statement, with many in the audience standing to applaud.
A stream of last night’s debate is available on the Daily Freeman’s website. The next debate in the series will take place at 8 PM on Thursday, October 18, and will be broadcast by WMHT.