editorial (2006-27)

Senate Debate was a Corker

Under attack, the former Chattanooga mayor acquitted himself well

Senate Debate was a Corker

Political debate is such that it often isn’t a real debate, with candidates launching off in different directions, following their own agendas, rather than answering the questions put to them.

The three-way jousting among the Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate last week at the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at UT was, however, much more debate than speechifying, especially on the part of former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.

In fending off harsh attacks from former Congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, who sat on each side of him on the dais, Corker explained himself and his positions well and calmly, never appearing to be on the defensive.

Questioning came from a media panel, including Hallerin Hill, WNOX radio’s talk-show fixture; Barry Henderson, Metro Pulse ’s senior editor; and Lori Tucker, anchor personality for WATE-TV, which aired the debate. It was limited to four or five questions from each panelist.

Those questions centered largely on hot-button issues such as illegal immigration, abortion and taxes. The candidates’ answers were similar, although Corker tended to answer directly and succinctly, while the other two managed to bring in criticisms of Corker and to veer off onto other subjects.

Bryant, who was also formerly a federal prosecutor, seems to have difficulty being anything but a prosecutor in this Senate race, and Hilleary,  who was in the Air Force in the Gulf War, spent an inordinate amount of time discussing his military background, though he wasn’t asked about it.

Besides the media panel, audience questions were taken from Frank Cagle, the editor of Metro Pulse ’s sister publication, Knoxville magazine, and from a spokesperson for the League of Women Voters, which co-sponsored the debate along with the Baker Center.

All three candidates adopted traditional conservative positions on the issues at hand. On the abortion question, Corker replied (more to the other candidates than the questioners) that he originally said he thought that abortion wasn’t a matter for government interference, but that he has changed his mind over the past dozen years and feels the practice should be outlawed in most cases, except when a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy. We don’t agree on that. We don’t consider him or anyone in the GOP race to be pro-choice. That’s the best option, the one that puts abortion decisions between a woman and her doctor.

To a statement from Bryant that Corker blocked a proposed provision in state law that would have made public funding of abortions illegal when Corker served the Sundquist administration as state Finance Director, Corker responded that the reason he did so was that the provision was a last-minute amendment to another bill, that there was not time to debate it in the Legislature, and that it was an issue that deserved debate.

In the days subsequent to the candidates’ televised debate, both Bryant and Hilleary issued media releases charging that Corker blocked passage of the abortion amendment without reference to his explanation.

Assaults on Corker on abortion and taxation issues in the debate came from both his rivals, perhaps because he is considered the better-financed front-runner in the race. His thoughtful counters to those assertions contrasted with the bombast with which they were delivered.

Virtually throughout the debate, which was moderated by WATE-TV news anchor Gene Patterson, Corker came off as being victimized without adopting the aura of a victim who was struggling with that position. He called the other two his “Washington friends” repeatedly, but otherwise made no disparaging remarks about them. He also said he considers himself—a self-made businessman before he entered public service—“more conservative” than either of his rivals.

Corker exhibited a large measure of personal and political polish that neither of the other candidates could muster. His attitude and answers went a long way toward explaining his broad backing by his party’s movers and shakers in this campaign to succeed outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is not running for reelection.

Though he handled himself with some poise and seemed at ease on the dais, Bryant continued to project the attack-dog image that he has held throughout the campaign, and Hilleary, who appeared befuddled at times by the smooth political postures assumed by the other two, came off as a lightweight absorbed more by his past experiences as a military man than by his role as an ex-Congressman. His drubbing by Gov. Phil Bredesen in the last gubernatorial race seems to have taught him little more in the way of political savvy and adroitness than he showed back then.

The negative nature of Bryant’s campaigning in this Senate race must hurt his chances with the constituency he wants most to impress, and the contrast between that negativity and Corker’s capability to stick with his positive aspects would appear to make this Senate election an easy choice for Republican voters.

If Bob Corker doesn’t win the nomination, it will be because of some other, unforeseen issue that arises before the Aug. 7 primary election. It won’t be because of the issues raised or the personal attacks that he deftly parried during the Knoxville debate, nor will he lose on the issues he has successfully made himself clear on throughout the early rounds of campaigning.