Impressions of the Hamilton debate

It’s taken me a couple of days to order my thoughts around the recent Senate debate. It was loud and unruly, passions were high. I mentioned this before in the comments at Left in the West, but this debate was an old-fashioned stump debate. The hall was filled to capacity and then some – so around 800 people crowded in, elbow-to-elbow, missing the first football weekend, to hear the debate. It was electric. The audio caught by Intelligent Discontent does not do the crowd justice. In fact, it sounds like much of the noise has been edited out.)

Senator Conrad Burns of Montana turned in one of the most disgraceful, misleading, and shameful performances I have ever — ever! — seen from a candidate, local, state, or federal. He was rude. He was aggressive. Worse still, he told some of the biggest lies I have ever heard – some whoppers that might have made even Eric Coobs red-faced – lies specifically designed to impugn Jon Tester’s character and mislead the electorate.

Montana, meet your Senator, and welcome to your autumn. It’s going to be ugly.

The negativity started early, with the first question on Iraq. First, Burns questioned the loyalty of any American who opposes the war. Then he implied that anyone who thought we were in a quagmire with no plan to extract ourselves was living in a fantasy world. He vainly tried to capture a little Reagan humor with a “here we go again” line, but the delivery was so mean-spirited, not a single person laughed, not even from the kicking-girl chorus line of Burns Youth.

It only went downhill from there.

There were the usual dodges, like when Burns touted the host of his loser legislation. The car-wreck that is Medicare Part B. His energy bill that dropped billions into the pockets of Big Energy. Worse still, he claimed the deficit was under control, because the amount we’re borrowing was shrinking. (Tester: like saying “I’m maintaining my weight gain.”)

Then there was the physical and verbal aggression. During the question on energy, Burns charged across the stage and wagged his finger at Tester, yelling “Skirted the question! Skirted the question!” During the last question on vets, Burns shouted “Why don’t he! Why don’t he!” when listening to Tester’s agenda, insinuating he had the power to enact it during his tenure in the state legislature.

But worst of all were the outright lies, directed at Tester’s character and his ethics.

It started with the question on ethics. Tester claimed that Washington changed the Senator. That it’s time to come home. (I’m saying “claimed” because that’s assuming Burns was honest before he was elected to the Senate.) Burns’ response:

Burns fired back: “Washington hasn’t changed me. I have the same wife, the same kids, got the same principles, same values.”

“While we’re talking about that, Jon, why don’t we spell out the Votesmart little thing. What is this little slush fund? You call it a constituency fund – no accountability, you don’t have to report where you got the money.”

Burns then challenged Tester on a foreign trip, which Burns claimed Tester took and didn’t report.

“Jon you were called on the carpet for illegal phone-calling to raise funds,” Burns said. “And I think you said at the time that’s a terrible law.

“When you look at everything here, maybe I’m the only one here that’s not a lawbreaker. I might be the only one, I might be the only one.”

Burns’ connections to Jack Abramoff are well documented. Burns and his staff are under investigation by the Department of Justice. Every accusation Burns made is false.

That Burns could stand there in front of the crowd and make those allegations while claiming his own honesty…well, let’s just say that he was amply rewarded by the crowd for his actions.

Whatever smidgeon of respect that I had for Conrad Burns is now gone. Gone. He is a liar and a cheat. He’s willfully deceiving the Montana voters of his record and his integrity and deliberately tarnishing the character of an honest man.


I don’t know which genius on Burns’ staff came up with the idea that Burns should compare himself to “sunshine” and “light bulbs,” but trust me…that will stick.

Tester, for his part, started out weak. He spoke too softly and got lost in policy – which isn’t a bad thing, it’s obvious Tester actually cares about these things, health insurance, agriculture, energy. But it was an awkward start for Jon.

But once Burns started ripping him, the gloves were off and Tester not only refused to back down, he threw it all back into Burns’ face. Burns at times appeared confused, bewildered, and at a loss for words. When the crowd heckled him over his ethical questions, he looked part shocked and part guilty, like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Tester walked all over Burns.

The worst of it came when Burns started on agricultural questions. Burns’ attempts to portray himself as the benevolent and paternal check-writer to Tester’s naughty and disrespectful rebel-farmer (perhaps showing us how Burns himself has been too often treated by his lobbyist overseers?), totally backfired as a visibly angered Tester shot back with a number of real and serious issues that are affecting family farmers across the state and issues Burns is less than stellar on. The exchange made one thing clear: Tester is closer to the farmers and ranchers of the state than Burns ever will be.

Look, much has been made of the crowd – some of it negative, especially by a press corps who dislike politics and regard enthusiasm with distrust and antipathy – but the fact remains, Hamilton is supposed to be a Burns stronghold! If you get booed in your own house, you’ve got problems!

One can only wonder what the atmosphere in Butte will be like.

The bottom line. In the Whitefish debate, Burns looked like a tired old man searching for words to describe polices he didn’t understand, while Tester looked young, smart, and open. In the Hamilton debate, Burns looked like an angry and aggressive rooster who picks a fight only to find himself backed into a corner, while Tester looked like passionate, honest, and strong.

  1. Colby Natale

    So what do you think Jay, you up to traveling to Butte and meet up with everybody for the next round?

  2. Yeah, Lightbulbs and Sinshine just might stick, and I might have something to do with it. ;)

  3. When I was a kid and got caught doing something wrong, my first impulse was to blame my brother and say he was doing the same thing or somethng worse. It’s a childhood impulse.

    That’s all Burns is doing – he looks mighty guilty to me.

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