BY RAY PEARCEY
A widely anticipated debate between James Lankford, a Republican U.S. House member from the OKC area, and Connie Johnson, a Democratic Oklahoma state senator from OKC proper, took place last week.
The televised face off was on an even keel from start to finish. In a race in which Johnson is vastly out flanked by Lankford’s financial war chest, on last reading Johnson had raised about $90,000 while Lankford had a cool $2 million at his disposal; accordingly, the debate was unusually important, since Johnson, due to her funding challenges is having real difficulty getting her message out to Oklahoma voters.
The debate took place at OSU and was a relatively straightforward, calm affair – in striking contrast to the pitched exchanges that have animated many of the U.S. Senate debates this year – especially in the dozen or so deeply contested fights that may give Republicans control of the United States Senate, post election.
With the exception of healthcare, marriage equality and national marijuana policy, the two candidates for Oklahoma’s replacement to retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn found a surprisingly wide array of topics to agree on.
This is perhaps not surprising given the uber-conservative critique that powered former OK House Speaker T.W. Shannon’s failed campaign in the OK Republican senatorial primary against Lankford this past summer.
Shannon’s attacks insisted that Rep. Lankford was too attached to mainstream Washington – an attachment that many Tea Party and very conservative Republicans claimed has little to do with the average concerns of Oklahoma voters.
Here, the contrast between Johnson and Lankford was decidedly more subtle than one might’ve expected given the mania on the Republican right about immigrants and “the border crisis.”
While Johnson and Lankford both affirmed the polyglot nature of the U.S. population and the need for additional enforcement resources at the border, the difference between the two – excepting Lankford’s weirdly casual comment on the need for a massive immigrant “send back” – flowed from Johnson vantage as a social services expert: she made a case for putting together a battery of services for immigrants and children that would entail more than enforcement or deportation efforts.
Johnson also made what was arguably an elegant statement on the nature of diversity and the origins of America – most of us, she contended, came from somewhere voluntarily, excepting Native Americans and people who came as prisoners in the holds of slave ships.
More broadly however, the two were mostly in agreement. At one point in the exchange, Lankford said: “Those who say, ‘Just build a fence’ are taking an unrealistic approach to the problem.”
“The U.S. needs to revamp its work visa programs while making it clear that those who come to this country illegally will be sent home,” he continued.
How realistic sending millions of undocumented immigrants back to Mexico and Latin America – a wildly inconsistent part of Lankford’s outlook on this matter – wasn’t discussed.
Johnson, who is a state leader in the pot debate and has long been a leading voice to decriminalize marijuana usage for medical purposes, again conveyed her longstanding view: she alluded to strong evidence that marijuana was one of the few effective and affordable remedies for whole variety of maladies.
Lankford, meanwhile, argued that his long experiences as a youth minister provided “ … first-hand [evidence] of the damage done by drugs … ”
Here Lankford said that the president’s current anti-ISIL cum air strike/Arab nation coalition strategy, was essentially correct – a stout military response, including the current round of airstrikes, was an altogether appropriate course, he conveyed, given the consensus that ISIL is a huge threat to the region and potentially to the U.S. and the larger world.
Johnson, while stipulating that she certainly was in favor of doing something to roll back ISIL, said that her strong preference was for a multi-form diplomatic and conflict resolution effort, a difficult proposition given that ISIL, like al Qaeda, al Nusra, Boko Haram and other aggressive jihadi forces, has not been up for negotiations of any kind.
In a fascinating way, Johnson’s outlook harkened back to Barack Obama’s posture earlier this year and over the course of the last three years, vis a vis the catastrophic Syrian civil war; his opposition to being a party to a murky, ultra-violent tussle that has produced 200,000 deaths and over three million refugees.
Interestingly, one of the senior staffers at the storied Center for International Conflict Resolution talked recently at the Brookings Institute about prospects for getting Iraqi officials or others parties to contact and “turn” former Iraqi military officials working for ISIL – senior military and logistics specialists who apparently are the drivers of ISIL’s very agile military performance to date.
These former senior Iraqi military officials are people who were cast aside, as were many other Sunni officials, by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government over the course of the past eight years. So, arguably a conflict resolution strategy, of the kind suggested by Johnson is not inconceivable, although it would obviously be tough and is not on the table at the moment.
Here, the differences between the two candidates was pronounced. Johnson indicated that she was foursquare in favor of ObamaCare and said that healthcare was both a right and a responsibility, while Lankford indicated that healthcare was largely the responsibility of individuals, families, communities and churches.
He asserted that while it was a priority with him, provision of healthcare was certainly not something that was primarily a federal service – he argued that a “federal takeover” was disastrous policy and something to be avoided at all costs.
Absent from the debate was any explicit reference to what has been the arguably unexpected early success and high enrollment numbers associated with ObamaCare after its, by most accounts, disastrous launch.
Also, no mention was made by either party to OK Gov. Mary Fallin’s non-participation in the expanded Medicaid “joint up” option, an avenue that would’ve provided access for hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans – all modest income individuals and families – to ObamaCare.
Marriage “policy” was one of the starkest contrasts between the candidates. Marriage was a matter for states to handle, Lankford insisted; he implicitly rejected the Supreme Court’s recent deferral on a set of lower federal court challenge to same sex marriage that have emerged in recent months.
Johnson argued from her often strong libertarian vantage that marriage equality was simply a matter of individual rights and not a matter for governments to decide; she linked her opposition to government constraints on marriage to her views on rolling back federal surveillance of Internet and phone traffic, Obama drone policy and her strong views on reproductive rights for women.
” … Government ought to provide the things we can’t do as individuals. … The state should have no business in who people want to be with,” Johnson said.
Lankford said, as he has in many settings over the last two years, that marriage is a matter between a man and a woman and any other definition was simply unacceptable.
Lankford’s response to the exploding Ebola crisis was the most fascinating feature of the debate. Lankford, with real intensity in his voice, indicated that having a single Ebola victim in the U.S. was far from a problem, given the thousands of West Africans who have been infected with the disease.
He essentially argued for a policy of compassion and implicitly rebutted the “seal them off” arguments that some of his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate have yelled in recent weeks.
“We have one person with Ebola in the United States, and he is in isolation [and has since died] … There are 7,500 people in West Africa with Ebola. If something isn’t done, there may be a half-million. It will spread if the United States does not engage in the crisis,” he said.
– Ray Pearcey is a technology and public policy consultant, editor of The Oklahoma Eagle and a columnist for The Tulsa Voice