To the People

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or TO THE PEOPLE.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Report From the Fourth Debate

Last night was the fourth debate in the congressional race here in CT's 4th CD. My conclusion: Chris Shays should be beaten with a stick.

This was much better than Sunday's debate in Stamford hosted by the World Affairs Forum. There, audience members queued a microphone to ask foreign-policy questions of the three candidates, each of whom had a cumulative 20 minutes to answer. It quickly became apparent the Crank Factor is not limited to Libertarian Party conventions: people lined up to make meandering statements (shouted down once the audience's patience wore thin) or simply spew vitriol at Shays. Twice the moderator and others had to decipher what exactly the person was asking. The evening rambled inconclusively with a number of missed opportunities. Shays and Farrell quarreled and Maymin, I believe, ended with something like six minutes left. Roundup here.

But last night's was much better. Hosted by B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, the three-minute limit for responses to audience questions -- written on cards and selected by the moderator -- and one-minute rebuttals made for snappier flow. And, needless to say, less Crank Factor.

Now when I arrived at the temple, I made my way through a series of foyers but paused on the threshold of the sanctuary, wondering if I needed a yarmulke; I know some synagogues provide loaners at the door for guests. But someone ahead of me was asking the same thing of the rabbi, who said they weren't required at B'nai Israel. There were plenty of seats and so I grabbed one near the front.

Soon enough the rabbi, moderator, candidates, and others gathered on the dais. As with the previous debates, Farrell and Maymin took their positions while Shays worked the crowd until the last second. I noticed Shays wore a blue yarmulke. Maymin was bare-headed.

Each candidate was allowed a three-minute opening statement. There was no particular theme for the evening; any topic was open for discussion. The order was Shays, Farrell, then Maymin.

This was the first sentence of Shays' opening statement:

"How does a goyishe boy from Darien grow up to care so much for Israel?"

I kid you fucking not. He went on about some Jewish teachers he had and all of his trips to Israel, how he had met with the families of the kidnapped soldiers and so on. When her turn came, Farrell joked, "I suppose I should start with, How does a shikse blonde, dot dot dot," which got a laugh, but then she mentioned her trip to Israel and went from there. And so this was Shays' and Farrell's opening strategy, the Christian Scientist and the Congregationalist each trying to establish his or her Jew cred.

For his part, Maymin never mentioned Israel in his opening or acted as if there was anything special or different about the audience. Instead he talked about the wrongness of forced retribution, ending by noting that Robin Hood didn't steal from the rich to give to the poor -- he stole back from the government what it had stolen from the people.

The first question asked what steps the US could take to restore its moral image in the world in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib. Shays stood and, completely out of nowhere, told how his mom had lectured him before the debate not to boast. "Does that make her a Jewish mother?" he asked. A smattering of nervous laughter.

Shays said that while Abu Ghraib was outrageous behavior, it wasn't torture, and further it is difficult to have a dialogue with a world convinced that it was. "What does the world think about Israel?" Israel was criticized for attacking Hezbollah, he said. "Why would you think the media would be any fairer to America?"

Farrell's boilerplate response wandered from living in a post 9/11 world to attacking Bush to saying change in Washington was necessary. Then Maymin stood and said, "It's not an image issue -- it's an issue of doing the right thing." In any war there will be terrible things, so we have to make sure that it's the right war. He disagreed with his Republican opponent -- it was torture and there was no mistaking it. He ended by saying, "At my wedding, the Torah reading was -- " and he said something in Hebrew which escaped me " -- Which means, 'What you pursue must be just, but the means by which you pursue it must also be just.'"

Boom. The whole house thundered. And at this point Shays' demeanor subtly but completely changed, like a patient waking up on the operating table. Holy shit, you could see him thinking, I'm up here playing make-believe and the guy sitting next to me is the real deal! But perhaps I imagined it because this presupposes Shays has any sense of shame.

Maymin was on top of his game the whole night. Whereas on Sunday he almost seemed to give up in the face of the audience's ridiculousness, his collected manner harvested applause from those who initially only clapped for one of the other two. On North Korea: sanctions restrict Americans' ability to trade and trade makes peace. Public transportation: transit is a state, local, and personal issue; let's try market solutions, like different tolls depending on the time of day (a system, BTW, having great success in Stockholm). Social security: grandfather those receiving it or about to receive it, but phase it out -- after all, retirement is a concept the government invented. Israel: for America to make decisions for Israel is bad for Israel, as when we stepped in to demand a ceasefire instead of letting them wipe out Hezbollah; better to restrict cooperation to logistics and intelligence, which is what allies do for each other.

At one point, Shays and Farrell were yet again digging into each other, and Shays commented that Farrell hadn't run for a second reelection as Westport's First Selectwoman (the CT version of mayor) because she wouldn't have won, resulting in very loud booing from an otherwise polite crowd. It hit me that Shays is completely and totally around the bend. For the past few weeks I have been watching a man slowly disintegrate before my eyes.

Afterwards, I asked Jeff, a congregation member sitting beside me, what he thought of Shays' and Farrell's naked pandering. He seemed less offended by it than I was. They each want to show they're the better friend of Israel, he said. It's what politicians do. He also told me he had come to see Farrell but wasn't impressed. Now he was leaning toward Maymin.

We walked out together to the foyer, where Courtenay Hough, Maymin's Assistant Campaign Manager, was manning the literature table. I introduced them.

"We've got a convert!" I said.