I've covered a lot of campaigns where the candidates sounded so much like each other that it was hard keeping the quotes straight. This year's Pennsylvania Senate campaign isn't one of them. This year, there's no confusing the messages of Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey.
This year, the question is whether voters are paying attention.
Sestak was here on Tuesday, making a speech about his economic plan before a crowd of 80 gathered at Carnegie Mellon University. In some ways, there was very little news here: As Sestak himself pointed out, his policy prescriptions-- which rely heavily on supporting small business with tax breaks and incentives -- haven't changed since last year.
The larger point of his message was to draw a contrast between himself and Toomey ... not just in terms of his policy, but in approach.
Sestak, who draws on his Navy background at every appearance, noted that one of his first postings was as damage-control officer ... and noted that he's been playing a similar role in Congress. In Congress, Sestak voted for President Obama's stimulus plan, and supported the highly controversial "Wall Street bailout" initiated by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.
Toomey, who headed the laissez-faire Club for Growth after leaving Congress, has criticized the bailout. But while it was opposed from both the right and left, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that, whatever its shortcomings, the bailout helped avert another Great Depression. And in his CMU speech, Sestak repeatedly portrayed himself as the practical, solution-oriented guy -- the candidate who put aside ideology in favor of results. He depicted Toomey, by contrast, as an out-of-touch ideologue.
More than once, Sestak faulted Toomey for indulging in "intellectual arguments" and "theoretical debates" while "We are talking about real people, real lives being destroyed."
Toomey's zeal for deregulating financial markets and everything else, Sestak argued, set the stage for the current recession (AKA "Congressman Toomey's unfortunate legacy"). "We put out the fire," he said, "but let's not forget who lit the match."
And he noted what is sure to be a central irony of this campaign: "My opponent has attacked the steps we took to clean up the mess ... he left behind."
Sure enough, that very day Toomey released an ad blaming Sestak for voting in favor of the bailout, and faulting the Democrat for accepting contributions from Wall Street. The ad, of course, does not disclose a fact I've noted earlier: Toomey himself has received four times as much money from the financial sector as Sestak has. It's pretty clear that Wall Street has decided who its friends are.
But Toomey has to hope that voters don't realize that.
As a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggested, Republicans have some powerful advantages going into November: Among likely voters, they have a 9-point edge. But perhaps the GOP's biggest advantage is that many of those voters don't know what they are talking about.
58% believe that Republicans, if they take back control of Congress, will have different ideas than Bush's, versus 35% who think they will return to Bush's policies.
That looks like wishful thinking, at least as far as Toomey is concerned. Check out Toomey's own "plan" for the economy. To the extent it says anything at all, it says this:
[T]he government should be making it less expensive and easier for businesses to hire people. It can do this by cutting taxes and decreasing regulation. For example, if we rescind the stimulus and cut both employees' and employers' payroll taxes instead, every worker would see an immediate increase in their take home pay and it would be less expensive for businesses to hire new workers. If we eliminated the tax on capital gains and lowered the tax on businesses, it would make U.S. companies more competitive, and lead to major job growth.
So what this boils down to is lower taxes on corporations and capital gains -- the kind of income you earn from trading stocks, among other things -- and less regulation of business. Hard to see how any of that is different from the MO of the Bush Administration, which people despise. As Obama noted in his own speech yesterday, Republicans are offering "the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place: Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations.
Toomey is vulnerable on this sort of thing -- or ought to be. The MSNBC poll also notes the following:Democrats could also find success by stressing unpopular connections within the Republican Party.
For starters, 68 percent of respondents say they’re uncomfortable or have reservations about candidates who support phasing out Social Security and would allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market.
That position ... ranks worst on the poll's list of nine candidate attributes.
The second worst: support of George W. Bush's economic policies. Sixty-two percent of survey takers had problems with that political trait.
So there's reason to be optimistic -- or at least hopeful -- about Sestak's chances here. He won't have to work too hard to tie Toomey to some of the most unpopular policies in the country today. But the question is which Pennsylvanians hate more: the bailout itself, or the policies that made it inevitable? And are they even connecting the one with the other? Will we actually decide that the response to a Wall Street-engineered recession involves giving Wall Street even freer rein?
If so, well ... we're gonna get the Senator we deserve.