Kagen and Gard clash in debate

Dylan Reed-Maxfield

Wisconsin 8th District congressional candidates John Gard of Peshtigo and Steve Kagen of Appleton engaged in public debate last Thursday evening, Oct. 23. Two years ago, Kagen, the Democratic incumbent, defeated the Republican Gard 51 percent to 49 percent to take the seat, which Republican Mark Green was vacating to run for Governor — he lost. The debate, which was co-sponsored by AARP, Lawrence University, and The Appleton Post-Crescent, took place at 7 p.m. in Stansbury Theatre.
LUCC President James Duncan-Welke welcomed the capacity crowd of 8th District residents and Lawrence students. He reflected on the excitement of students who were casting their first ballots, then strove to impress upon the audience the importance of each of their votes, referring to the 8th District as “a swing district in a swing state.”
Dan Flannery, the executive editor of the Post-Crescent who moderated the debate, explained the format and rules and welcomed the candidates to the stage.
After brief opening statements, the candidates took turns fielding questions selected from the many submitted by both Lawrentians and 8th District AARP members. The issues that took center stage were the national debt, the budget deficit, healthcare accessibility, energy prices, foreign oil dependence, climate change, farm policy and — appropriate to the setting, as the moderator remarked — the cost of higher education.
Although the debate remained civil, at least on stage, it was reflective of the increasingly negative political campaigns to which Americans have grown accustomed. Much of the argument centered on competing evaluations of Kagen’s work in his first term as a member of the House.
Gard sought to portray the 110th Congress as having failed the people of Wisconsin, largely through increased unnecessary spending, and tried to tie Kagen as tightly as he could to this legacy. Kagen, meanwhile, attempted to associate himself with the successes of the past two years. He also invoked the national Democratic tactic of casting his opponent as a member of the party of President George W. Bush, whose administration Kagen blames for the nation’s current economic woes.
One issue on which the candidates clashed was the 2007 Farm Bill. Kagen defended it, emphasizing especially the establishment of the dairy “safety net”, which provides protection to farmers when milk prices drop too low.
Gard attacked the bill for the large amount of pork-barrel spending he said it contained. A specific tax break for West Coast salmon fishing companies included in the bill became his refrain whenever he wanted to level charges of fiscal irresponsibility later in the debate, saying that he would have voted against the Farm Bill for this and other reasons.
The large crowd did not refrain from applause and commentary as it was asked to do, but let its approval or skepticism be heard at several of the debate’s tense moments. The large number of vocal supporters for both Kagen and Gard suggest that 8th District may be in for another close congressional race.