COLUMBIA — They each believe Missouri is "at a crossroads." The "best days are ahead of us." The old ways are bad. Change is good. And they want to move Missouri in "a new direction."
It seems Attorney General Jay Nixon and U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof are in general agreement.
Except the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates can't agree on which way is North and South, which way is forward and which way is backward.
The general rhetoric of the two leading gubernatorial candidates was strikingly similar as they met Thursday at MU for their first of four debates leading up to the Nov. 4 election.
Consider their opening statements:
Hulshof, who went first, declared: "Our state is at a crossroads. I'm offering a new way, a new direction. Unfortunately, there are those who are offering old, tired politics. That's not the change we need."
Nixon, speaking about five minutes later, declared something similar.
"I truly believe that our state is at a crossroads," Nixon said in his opening remarks. "We can either continue down the same road, with the same old policies, or we can take the state in a new direction."
Agreed: Nixon and Hulshof want to move Missouri in a new direction.
But as the debate unfolded, it became clear they were not using the same dictionary to define "old" and "new."
For Hulshof, the old way of doing things was the status quo that existed under 12 years of Democratic governors, culminating in the governorship of Bob Holden from 2001-2005. For example, there were significant expansions in the state's Medicaid program for the poor - described as public assistance by Hulshof and health care by Nixon.
Hulshof describes the "old way" as this: Spending demands that exceeded state revenues, 1 million people on public assistance, nationally leading job losses and businesses being shut down because of costly lawsuits and workers' compensation claims.
For Nixon, the old way of doing things is the status quo of the past four years under Republican Gov. Matt Blunt. For example, after Blunt enacted eligibility cuts to the Medicaid system in 2005, its rolls declined by about 170,000 people and the number of Missouri's without health insurance shot upward.
Nixon describes the "old way" as this: Hundreds of thousands of people without health insurance, rising college costs and job losses during a recent 12-month period that he says exceeded those of all of Missouri's bordering states combined.
"There is no question the policies coming out of Washington and Jefferson City have hurt Missouri families these past few years and moved our state backwards," Nixon said. "We need change. We must start moving forward again."
As one of his first moves as governor, Nixon vows to try to reverse the Medicaid cuts - to restore coverage to those whose benefits were eliminated or reduced and to expand the option of government-run health care to even more families.
Nixon describes that as moving forward. Hulshof describes that as moving backward.
"I don't want to go back, and that's the direction where we would go" with Nixon as governor, Hulshof said. "I don't want to hit the reset button."
During the past two weeks, Hulshof has twice served as a warm-up-the-crowd speaker for Republican presidential nominee John McCain and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In rallies in O'Fallon and again in Lee's Summit, Hulshof denounced Nixon's health care plan as restoring a "failed," "bankrupt" system and he declared to the partisan crowd: "That's the wrong way, Jay!"
Hulshof essentially has embraced the direction charted by Blunt, who is not seeking re-election this year. One day after the gubernatorial debate, Blunt declared to room full of editors, publishers and reporters: "We've changed the way state government operates for the better."
Nixon believes Blunt has taken the state in the wrong direction; to move forward, the state first must reverse course.
Based on their rhetoric, Nixon and Hulshof both project an optimistic future. They just can't agree on how to get there.
Consider their closing remarks during their debate.
"I have no doubts that Missouri's best days are ahead of us, not behind us, but we must change course," said Nixon, carefully emphasizing each of the last three words.
Hulshof closed in much the same way.
"I believe our best days are ahead of us, and I have a vision to get us there," he said.