Last Sunday in Oshkosh, Senator Feingold faced off against Tim Michels, the foredoomed Republican challenger. Sick of the meaningless choreography of the presidential debates, a prominent College Republican and I drove down to watch.Knowing that the race isn’t tight, Feingold was able to loosen up and speak his mind. Which gave this exchange a completely different tone than the televised presidential debates: there was humor, irony, wit.
And then there was Michels, who proved himself a competent straw man. I felt sorry for the guy, what with his stilted speeches and bizarre tangents to familiar talking points.
As a wishy-washy moderate, I was appalled. Michels was wishy-washy, all right, but only in the sense that he seemed not to know what he was talking about. Not in the good sense. Not in my sense.
For example, I learned that Wisconsin farmers and manufacturers are agitating for free trade. Yes Tim, there’s nothing American farmers would like more than to compete with foreign agriculture on a level playing field.
Michels also opposes U.S. intervention in Sudan, citing cost.
The Democratic candidate and only senator to vote against to USA PATRIOT Act came out stronger on almost every issue – even foreign policy and free trade, a sure sign that Oshkosh had passed through a vortex to some sort of bizarro world. A former lawyer and impressive debater, Feingold’s only obvious slip-up was his use of the word “terrendous,” an apparent conflation of “terrific” and “tremendous.”
When not emphasizing his real-world experience, Michels attacked Feingold for not doing enough as a senator, noting that “I voted against that” is not a valid excuse. Each candidate was also careful to bring a standard scare tactic to the debate: Feingold threatened the audience with more terrorist attacks, while Michels trotted out George Soros, the thinking Republican’s bogeyman of choice.
Feingold played up his bipartisan reputation, reminding the audience of an initiative he undertook with conservative senator Jesse Helms to deny China “most favored nation” status: “I went together with Jesse Helms on that bill! There were very few Helms-Feingold bills!”
Desperately trying to turn his opponent’s bipartisanship into a liability, Michels pointed out some unpopular stances of Arizona senator John McCain.
“Sometimes,” noted the incumbent, to audience titters and one veteran’s boo, “people forget that my first name isn’t ‘McCain.'”
All in all, it was a good debate. My friend and I were rolling our eyes and stifling laughter throughout the debate, as it became increasingly clear that Feingold was giving his opponent a sound drubbing. Looking around, I noticed others in the same predicament.