U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, and Andy Barr, his Republican challenger, disagreed about nearly everything Monday night in a statewide televised discussion. But it all boiled down to the proper role of the federal government.
Chandler, 51, a four-term congressman seeking re-election Nov. 2, said government has a crucial role to play in reviving the economy, creating jobs, building infrastructure, protecting the environment and developing new energy sources.
Barr, 37, a Lexington lawyer making his first run for elected office, said government needs to cut taxes, spending and regulations, including the recent health care and financial-system reform laws, and let the free-enterprise system work unfettered.
Chandler and Barr kept returning to this theme during their hourlong appearance on Kentucky Tonight on Kentucky Educational Television, in what could be their only debate of the campaign.
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Until Monday, voters in Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District had seen the race almost entirely through a barrage of attack ads on Lexington television stations. Many of the ads — on both sides — have been inaccurate.
Those attacks probably will continue. In his most recent campaign-finance filing, on Friday, Chandler reported spending nearly $10,000 on "opposition research," gathering material to use against Barr. Chandler still has $1.3 million on hand; Barr has $370,333.
Asked about the economy Monday, Chandler said the debt-laden private sector essentially froze in September 2008. The roughly $1 trillion in stimulus spending approved by Congress in 2009 steered the country away from a depression by saving or creating several million jobs that otherwise would not exist today, Chandler said.
Barr said the stimulus was riddled with waste and failed to stop unemployment from surging to 10 percent in Kentucky. If Congress wants to create jobs, Barr said, it needs to "get government out of the way" of the private sector.
"George Bush spent eight years getting government out of the way, and look what we got for it. We got an economic meltdown," Chandler said. He added that the Bush administration deregulated the financial sector to such an extent that major banks were allowed to overreach on risky deals.
"Let's not blame Bush," Barr said. "Let's not talk about that. George Bush's last deficit was $500 billion. This president has taken a $500 billion deficit and tripled it."
"I'm just astounded that someone could sit there and say that Barack Obama caused this meltdown. He wasn't even elected until November of 2008," Chandler said. "This is revisionism."
Barr said the recession was caused by bad government policies on housing and lending, particularly through the government-chartered agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the law known as the Community Reinvestment Act, which encouraged more lending in poor areas.
Replied Chandler, "I believe we had some greedy bankers on Wall Street. Seems to me the Wall Street bankers were at least a little involved in it."
They also clashed over a proposed cap-and-trade plan that Chandler voted for in 2009, to curb greenhouse gas emissions and try to reduce the effect of global warming. The proposal died in the Senate. But Chandler's vote angered the coal industry, which is backing Barr financially.
Chandler said he stands by his vote. Coal can remain a viable fuel, he said, but global warming is a threat, and energy sources other than fossil fuels must be cultivated. He said the now-lost proposal contained $60 billion to help the coal industry develop "clean coal" technology and to mitigate the cost of utility bill increases for customers.
Barr said cap-and-trade would have doubled Kentucky's electric rates and eliminated 35,000 jobs, not just in coal mines but also at Toyota in Georgetown and other factories.
"This matters to people in Kentucky, and it was going to be devastating if it was ever enacted," Barr said.
"Andy just spewed out a number of statistics there, most of which I believe are inaccurate," Chandler said. "These are, frankly, right-wing talking points."
The show's host, Bill Goodman, asked each candidate what spending he would cut to reduce the deficit, with special attention to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the military, which get the majority of federal funds. Neither man would commit to cuts in those areas.
Barr used this question to poke at Chandler by pledging to eliminate costly "congressional junkets" to exotic destinations like the Galapagos Islands, where Chandler traveled at public expense in 2008 as part of a "fact-finding" tour to study global warming.
Chandler bristled and said he travels because has been assigned to committees with international oversight, including, at present, the spending subcommittee that controls foreign aid.