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The best thing about the AETN debate of 2nd Congressional District candidates broadcast Tuesday night was that relatively few people watched.

The hour was a waste for everyone except the incumbent, Republican French Hill, who coasts in a defensive posture. He had smartly eschewed other debates to participate only in AETN's excuse.

Hill needed only to mouth about 15 minutes' worth of platitudes. The panel of three journalists neglected to ask at all about the biggest issue on which he potentially faces the greatest vulnerability--health care. Meantime, a credible-enough but irrelevant Libertarian candidate diluted the discussion.

By standing in the middle, and being quite tall, that Libertarian--Joe Ryne Swafford--literally buffered Hill from his Democratic challenger, Clarke Tucker.

Oh, and the format: Let me tell you about the weirdness of that.

A question went to one of three candidates. He answered. Then the other two candidates answered. Then the candidate who fielded the question originally got one minute to rebut. The other two didn't get diddly to rebut.

The unfair advantage was rotated among candidates question to question. But the stifling of valuable interplay was constant.

Tucker waited for one of the panelists to bring up health care, only to hear moderator Steve Barnes say, well, that's all the time we have, folks, except for closing statements. Tucker used his to talk about ... health care, to say at least a little where he'd wanted to say a lot.

Hill, going last in the closing-statement round, and thus the debate, sucker-punched Tucker with charges of liberalism and national party allegiance, knowing Tucker had no opportunity to answer.

The issue is that Hill voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with uncertainty. That dubious replacement included a nebulous risk-pool plan state-by-state that would have removed federally mandated premium and benefit equity for persons with pre-existing conditions.

It would have left those persons to the crapshoots of mean states like Arkansas.

Tucker, a recent survivor of cancer--a pre-existing condition--centers his campaign on protecting that federally mandated equality of treatment. Hill insists he voted to "truly protect" pre-existing condition coverage, which perhaps he could explain during, say, a debate. Except it never got asked.

Here's what did get asked about:

• The Kavanaugh confirmation, a Senate matter, not House, although it was timely and instructive to have the candidates discuss the incendiary gender issues arising from it.

• Immigration.

• Russian interference in our elections.

• The national debt, which is what I call a "blah-blah question." By that I mean it invites "blah-blah" responses, like Hill's, which was that he supports a balanced budget amendment presumably to force-feed what politicians fear to do, and like that of Tucker, who said he voted for as a state legislator for a balanced budget, which is state law.

• Tariffs, a policy strength of Hill.

• The proposal to raise the minimum wage, which is a state ballot issue having nothing to do with service in Congress.

The panelists tell me they had a health-care question ready for the next round, which they curiously expected to have time for.

Anyway, one of the panelists said, the candidates have been talking about health care a lot.

Another panelist told me it wasn't a panelist's job to tee up an issue for a candidate--presumably Tucker in this context.

I agree. Instead it's a panelist's job to tee up an issue not for a candidate, but freshly between the candidates, by asking about a highly contentious matter in a different and mutually challenging way that might serve the seven or eight people watching.

It's not easy. You'd need two questions, one for each candidate. This is about the best I can do off the top of my head:

For Hill--The Affordable Care Act repeal that you voted for and then celebrated with President Trump in the Rose Garden ... the president ended up calling it "too mean" when it ran into resistance in the Senate. Isn't the removal of federally mandated guaranteed premium and benefit equity for persons with diseases indeed ... if not mean, then highly insensitive to their conditions and understandable fears?

Then Tucker could rebut, in a real debate.

For Tucker--It's easy to say Congressman Hill's vote ill-served persons with pre-existing conditions. But the reason for proposing to separate those conditions into their own risk pools was to try to stop the unsustainable annual rise in premiums for everyone else. How would you address that--so that the health insurance agent to whom I was speaking the other day could deliver something other than bad annual news on steep premium increases to employers, employees and individually insured clients?

Then Hill could rebut, in a real debate.

Oh, well. National experts say this is not a particularly competitive House race. That was certainly true the other night on AETN.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 10/11/2018

Print Headline: Ill-served by 'debate'

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