The debate before the real big debate

State Republican Chairman Ryan Call vs. Democratic Chairman Rick Palacio
The Colorado Statesman

The leaders of Colorado’s Republican and Democratic parties debated each other Monday as part of the events leading up to the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3. The theme of the hour and a half long discussion was Colorado’s influence on the national conversation.

Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, and Rick Palacio, his counterpart in the Democratic Party, mostly argued about domestic policy, which along with health care and the role of government are topics expected to be discussed by President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney next Wednesday night.

Former Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Ross Perot for the nomination of the Reform Party for president in 1996, moderated the debate, pressing the two party leaders to offer specifics on their differing ideologies. His first question was about balancing the need for the economy and the need to control the debt.

Call, carrying the messaging from Romney’s campaign, said the nation cannot borrow its way out of debt. He then went on to criticize Obama for policies that have led to a ballooning national debt and a stagnant, dismal unemployment rate.

“You need to judge this president on more than just his winning smile, or his cool Hollywood friends,” said Call, alluding to recent fundraisers with A-list celebrities like music super-couple Beyoncé Knowles and Jay-Z, as well as George Clooney. “You’ve got to judge him on the basis of his record. The president himself said that if he could not turn things around then this would be a one-term proposition.”

Call said that under Obama there has been 43 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent, and that the president has added nearly $5.5 trillion to the national debt since taking office. He blames much of that on Democratic proposals to grow the size of government — such as Obama’s 2009 $831 billion economic stimulus measure — which Call fears squeezes the private sector.

“The government cannot become so large, or spend so much that it crowds out the private and the charitable sector, or grow to the point where everyone believes that they’re entitled to have stuff given to them paid for by someone else,” he told his young audience at the Sturm College of Law.

“Pretty soon someone is going to have to pay off the nation’s credit card, and unfortunately it’s going to be a lot of the young people who are attending the University of Denver and other institutions,” added Call.

Palacio fought back, pointing out that much of the unemployment and deficit troubles faced by the nation were inherited following Republican President George W. Bush’s administration.

“I think you’re going to need a better argument than the Democrats don’t clean up Republican messes fast enough,” said Palacio, paraphrasing remarks by former Democratic President Bill Clinton during the recent Democratic National Convention earlier this month.

Palacio defended the president’s stimulus measure, stating that it helped to stave off job loss and to spur economic recovery, which is being realized now on a slow, but growing scale.

“When the economy was losing more than 750,000 jobs a month, the president took immediate action to stem that crisis…” said Palacio, who said that through tax cuts and stimulus, the nation was able to add 4.6 million private sector jobs and 30 consecutive months of job growth. “Four years later, it’s clear that the president’s actions stopped the hemorrhaging that we were experiencing at the time, and it prevented us from slipping into a great depression.”

Palacio then went on to criticize Romney’s economic plan — including a budget proposal by Romney’s run-ning mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — which Palacio believes would extend tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest, while hiking taxes on the middle class.

“Mitt Romney wants to extend those tax cuts for those who are the wealthiest, instead of making them pay their fair share, and he has even talked about making sure that the people at the bottom… would see increased taxes on the average working family by $2,000 per year,” said Palacio.

Taking a jab at Romney supporters, Palacio pointed to a study of Romney’s economic policy by Reed College economist Kimberly Clausing, which found that Romney’s plan to eliminate taxes on corporations’ foreign income would encourage companies to shift operations overseas, creating about 800,000 jobs in other countries.

“The Romney-Ryan budget would not create any jobs. Actually, I take that back,” started Palacio. “It would create jobs. Approximately 800,000 jobs would be created in China, not in the United States.”

As for making progress on the economy, Palacio says the problem is that Republicans are not willing to work with Democrats to find compromise. But Call says, “Everything is on the table.” One of the holdups, however, according to Call, are entitlement programs.

“We are on a path to fiscal disaster if we don’t rein in these entitlement programs,” he said.

U.S. Supreme Court appointments on the line

The two party leaders were also asked by Lamm how a president should go about appointing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is possible that if Obama wins re-election, he could appoint as many as three new justices to the high court. He has already appointed Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the federal bench, but those nominations simply replaced already liberal judges.

On the other side, Romney could potentially stack a conservative bench if he is elected, which could impact important rulings on reproductive health care, affirmative action and gay marriage, to name a few.

For his part, Palacio said that a president should look for justices with “real life experience” when making appointments.

“We need someone who has practical experience,” he said. “We need someone who is willing and able to be fair, and we need someone who is not an ideologue on either side, either Democrat or Republican. They need to make sure that they’re putting their personal politics and checking them at the door when they’re sworn into the Supreme Court.”

Call did not disagree entirely, arguing that appropriate appointments to the Supreme Court are candidates who exercise a balance in judgment.

“If my candidate were to ask me what I’m looking for in a United States Supreme Court justice, I would say, first, look for someone who is going to respect that prerogative, that balance of powers in terms of the role of the federal judiciary,” said Call. “I would also say look for someone who has some judicial experience… so that we don’t have someone who is going into the court with a particular ideological axe to grind.”

Campaign finance

Call and Palacio were also asked to weigh in on the relatively recent Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which essentially opened the door for unlimited campaign contributions from unions and corporations.

The two party leaders disagreed about the case. Palacio took a Democratic philosophy, which is that the ruling should be overturned through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while Call agreed with the reasoning behind the ruling.

“Corporations, or non-profit organizations, are really just a collection of citizens who are binding together,” explained Call. “To try to referee to say this is a good corporation or a bad corporation… puts the government in an untenable situation of having to referee speech.”

Palacio disagreed, stating, “Corporations are not people. Regardless of what Mitt Romney argues, corporations do not have a beating heart or a soul, so they should not have the same protections under the law as an individual citizen does.”

Energy policy

The two also disagreed on energy policy, with Call placing a lot of blame on Obama for supporting rules and regulations that Call believes drives energy developers away and hurts the economy.

“Colorado has the opportunity to really lead the nation in respect to energy development and exploration,” said Call. “The energy resources that we have here in Colorado are not only diverse, but they’re waiting to be responsibly developed. We can create thousands of new jobs across Colorado, develop and help grow local economies and strengthen our own domestic energy security…”

“Colorado, and particularly the West, really has the opportunity to be the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” the Republican state chairman added.

Call believes Obama’s administration is limiting oil and gas development through burdensome regulations, but he also blames the Environmental Protection Agency for strangling expansion.

“One of the big hampering aspects of it is not just the limits and moratoriums that the president and his administration have imposed on natural gas… but also regulations emanating from the EPA,” he said.

Palacio took offense to Call’s accusations concerning Obama’s approach to energy development, pointing out that oil and gas development has increased every year the president has been in office.

He said that in the first half of 2012, oil production exceeded 6 million barrels per day for the first time in
14 years. Palacio added that oil and gas jobs have increased by 18 percent under the Obama Administration, and that for the first five months of this year, oil production was up 22 percent compared to 2011. He said that there has been a 60 percent increase over 2008 levels.

“If the Republican Party insists and claims that it is good for the oil and gas industry, why then on the last year of the Bush Administration was it 60 percent lower than it is today going into the fourth year of an Obama Administration?” asked Palacio.

He said Obama is focused on “responsible” development that protects the environment while also utilizing traditional and alternative energy solutions, or an “all-of-the above” plan.

“President Obama has taken very concrete steps in making us more energy independent and creating an economy that’s built to last,” said Palacio.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com