Governor’s debate rouses two cheers for politics


David Crisp

I was just about ready to start this column this way: If you are not sufficiently depressed yet about the 2016 election, then I have a reading assignment for you.

But suddenly I feel better.

I admit that I’ve become unhealthily obsessed with this year’s presidential race. It’s the first time since the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960 that I have genuinely worried about what will become of the country if the wrong candidate wins.

I was only 9 years old then. I did not yet understand that most elections don’t have catastrophic consequences. This year, the fear is palpable.

Montana politics hasn’t made me feel much better. The Democrats have been running moronic ads pointing out that Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate for governor, used to live in New Jersey, making it sound like he used to live in Sodom.

Gianforte’s supporters have been catching up in sleaze. Recent ads compare Gov. Steve Bullock to the parody of a governor Mel Brooks played in “Blazing Saddles.” Even worse, another ad compares him to Hillary Clinton, a blow low enough to cause shin splints.

Ads supporting Gianforte aren’t much better. One implies that he would be a great governor because he shoots animals. Remember, Greg: Teddy Roosevelt became a brand name forever because of a bear he didn’t shoot.

But I started feeling better when I went to Monday night’s gubernatorial debate.

It wasn’t really that great a debate. Gianforte likes to boast that he is not a career politician, and it showed. He drew a few boos right off the bat when he ran through the time limit on his opening statement.

Bullock was then inexplicably cut off only a minute into his 90-second opening statement. When he pointed that out, he was awarded another 30 seconds. Gianforte then asked for another 30 seconds, too, arguing that he also had been cut off.

But he hadn’t. I timed the tape, and it turned out that Bullock had been cut off after exactly one minute, just as he claimed. But Gianforte had gotten at least 85 seconds for his opening statement.

It wasn’t a huge mistake, and it wasn’t even all Gianforte’s fault. But it set a tone that he was never quite able to shake.

True, Bullock had an easier assignment. He just had to play King of the Hill, standing up there with a perpetual wry smile, spouting off statistics about how great Montana is doing in terms of employment, gross domestic product, median income, business climate and tax fairness.

Not all of his numbers hold up to close scrutiny. For example, it’s true that WalletHub, an online social media site, ranked Montana No. 1 among the 50 states in tax fairness last year. But that was based largely on Montana’s lack of a state sales tax, a circumstance that Bullock did not create and could not change if he wanted to.

Gianforte’s numbers had their own flaws. He continues to point out that Montana ranks 49th in the nation in wages, but Last Best News took a close look at that figure in April and found that it distorted actual income in the Montana economy in crucial ways. Gianforte has never acknowledged those deficiencies.

The questions got off to an encouraging start when the Billings Gazette’s Tom Lutey asked Gianforte what his family foundation’s contributions to conservative groups said about his interest in protecting civil rights. After 90 seconds of word salad, moderator Becky Hillier asked if Gianforte had answered the question. To his credit, Lutey said, “No.”

This produced a second helping of word salad, plus claims that the question appeared to be an attack on Christianity and that Gianforte would defend the First Amendment. That was odd, considering that First Amendment claims have been at the heart of arguments that conservatives should not have to bake wedding cakes or provide other services to gay couples. Are those the only civil rights he is concerned about?

Unfortunately, follow-up questions were rare after that, and the debate reached its nadir a few minutes later when KULR-8’s Greg LaMotte asked both candidates whether they had been involved in any extramarital affairs.

It turned out they hadn’t, at least none they were willing to acknowledge before a packed Petro Theater and a TV audience. But the first two people I talked to after the debate, without my even bringing it up, both used the same adjective to describe the question: idiotic.

Just once, I wish a candidate would answer that question like this: “No, Greg, have you? Have you ever masturbated? Lingered over a dirty picture? Lusted in your heart for a woman? Because if you have, then you have no business asking questions like that, you creep.”

So why did I come away from the debate feeling better? The full house of cheering supporters for both candidates helped. Those were real people, not just interchangeable pundits and spokespeople freaking out over every new poll number.

And it helped that, by and large, the candidates laid out clear positions that gave voters reasonably clear guidance about what will happen when either is elected. Gianforte may lack polish, and Bullock may be a bit smug, but neither will do the state great harm.

If only I could feel that way about the race for president. But first, next week, will have to come that reading assignment.

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