U.S. Senate candidates from four political parties converged on MU’s Jesse Hall on Tuesday to debate a range of domestic and foreign issues, including education, Missouri River regulation, health care and the war on terrorism.
Well-publicized contenders Kit Bond, the Republican incumbent, and Nancy Farmer, the Democratic challenger and current Missouri state treasurer, traded barbs. Libertarian nominee Kevin Tull and Constitution Party candidate Don Griffin repeatedly stated their desire to limit the power of the federal government.
Early on, the debate focused on education. Bond said the federal government had worked to increase funding to elementary, secondary and special education along with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“We have, in the last four years, increased funding for elementary and secondary education by 40 percent and funding for special education by 53 percent,” Bond said.
But Farmer said the federal act did not come with adequate funding to improve Missouri schools.
“Sen. Bond has had numerous times to vote for fully funding No Child Left Behind,” Farmer said. “He’s leaving 30,000 low-income children behind right here in Missouri.”
Third-party candidates Tull and Griffin said they had fundamental problems with the federal government having any control over education funding.
“The money needs to go back to the people so the parents can educate their children the best possible way and make those choices for themselves,” Tull said.
None of the candidates said they supported school vouchers.
Both Bond and Farmer said they opposed reducing the flow of the Missouri River, a plan some have touted to restore wildlife habitat along the waterway.
“Several months ago, an effort was made to shut down the Missouri River again and I successfully fought that off,” Bond said. “Unfortunately, Mrs. Farmer has said she’s undecided and is listening to Sen. (Tom) Daschle and environmental groups about what to do with the Missouri River.”
Farmer countered, saying she had never spoken with Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and Senate minority leader, about this issue.
“We need to maintain barge traffic on the river, I agree with the senator on that,” Farmer said. “I think the environmentalists have still expressed some concerns, but I think the habitat restoration that has occurred has certainly increased my comfort level.”
The candidates had differing ideas on how to better provide health care to people working for small businesses.
Griffin said he supported giving employers tax benefits that could be used to give workers better health care options.
“They can have their own private Medicare system with far better options than they have through Medicaid,” he said.
Bond touted association health plans, which he said would allow small businesses to combine resources and provide health care similar to the benefits enjoyed by employees of larger companies.
In contrast, Farmer said she supported establishing a federal program that would provide health care to employees of small businesses. Business owners would have to buy into the program to let their employees access the benefits.
Bond and Farmer disagreed sharply over how much medical malpractice lawsuits were driving up health care costs.
“When you talk about the medical malpractice, that is the reason that doctors are leaving the practice in Missouri,” Bond said.
But Farmer said the cost of medical malpractice lawsuits had little impact on health care costs, saying real reform was needed in the insurance industry.
“Medical malpractice has an impact of less than one half of one percent on the cost of health care,” Farmer said. “The whole debate is about doctors and lawyers, and nobody ever acknowledges the 600-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room, and that’s the insurance industry.”
Tull disagreed with both Bond and Farmer.
“The 600-pound gorilla is the Constitution,” he said. “The fact is, the federal government has no role in health care.”
Later in the health care debate, Tull said he supported the decriminalization of drugs like marijuana and methamphetamine.
Regarding foreign policy, Griffin had harsh words for the decisions that led to the war in Iraq.
“I think that the evidence is becoming overwhelming that we relied on false and bogus … information,” Griffin said.
“We should apologize to the world for the killing of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children, do what we can to get that part of the world cleaned up and bring our troops back,” he said.
Bond defended the war as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
“The president responded forcefully by taking the war to the terrorists. And I support him,” he said. “We have gone in and cleaned out the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; we cleaned out the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.”
Farmer criticized the Bush administration for not sending in enough troops to handle the situation in Iraq. “I believe at this point in time that we need to send in more troops,” she said.
But Bond said the additional troops needed to stabilize Iraq should come from within Iraq.
“The ultimate success of the war on terror will come about when Iraqis take control of their country, not relying solely on American troops,” he said.
In his closing comments, Bond said his experience makes him the most qualified candidate. Bond, 65, of Mexico, Mo., was elected state auditor in 1970 and went on to serve two terms as governor of Missouri. He is seeking his fourth term in the U.S. Senate.
Audience member David Sapp of Columbia said a candidate needs more than experience.
Bond has) done some good things for Missouri, but to stand on experience is just not enough,” Sapp said. “I think we need a change.”
Sapp said he supports Farmer.
Farmer, 48, of St. Louis, served in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1993 to 1997. In 1997, she was appointed deputy state treasurer before being elected state treasurer in 2000.
MU student Atim Enyenihi said she was impressed with Tull’s proposal to decriminalize drugs.
Tull is a graphic artist from Kansas City. He edits the Missouri Libertarian Party’s official newsletter.
Griffin, of Ballwin, is a member of the Constitution Party. The party was founded in 1992 under the name “U.S. Taxpayers Party,” and seeks to limit the power of the federal government and put American law on a Biblical foundation, according to the party’s online mission statement.
Bob Priddy, Missourinet news director, moderated the debate along with a panel of journalists from Columbia media outlets. Some debate questions came from a statewide survey by the League of Women Voters. The rest of the questions were fashioned by Columbia and Boone County residents during a series of three community forums. The candidates did not receive the questions before the debate.
The candidates will debate again next week in St. Louis.