A dispiriting debate about North Carolina’s future

A dispiriting debate about North Carolina’s future

- in Fitzsimon File

Not long after Senator Barack Obama began rallying the Democratic Party faithful Tuesday night at the State Fairgrounds, a discussion that may be more important for North Carolina's future began at Durham television station WTVD, where Democrat Beverly Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory squared off in a live, televised debate in their battle for governor.

Taken as a whole, it was not reassuring, as both candidates largely fell back on simplistic soundbites, predictable talking points, misleading rhetoric, and more than a few incorrect factual claims as they answered questions from two television news anchors and viewers who submitted questions online.

The biggest fireworks of the evening came in discussion of a federal issue, drilling off North Carolina's coast, which McCrory can't endorse fast enough, proving that he is reading the same polls as national Republican candidates about the public's frustration with high gas prices.

Perdue had opposed offshore drilling but now says she will appoint a panel of scientific experts to help her decide. It would be years before any oil or natural gas could make it to the markets if state and federal officials unwisely approved drilling off the coast, but the drilling obsession is about politics not energy policy.

McCrory confirmed that when he was asked about studying the environmental impact of drilling and responded that he would conduct a thorough study and then drill.

The other flash of substance came in response to a question about health care, the issue that Perdue says pushed her into public service. Perdue offered some specifics for addressing the mental health mess and touted her role in developing North Carolina's health care program for children that McCrory doesn't seem to like.

He insisted that reducing insurance mandates and reforming the tort system are the answers to the health care crisis, along with a tax credit for small businesses that offer coverage, a credit that already exists.

McCrory was not specific about what things insurance policies should not have to cover, mammograms, mental health, diabetes treatments, etc. And the malpractice talking point from the right-wing websites has been disproven many times, including in a study by the General Accounting Office in Washington. None of McCrory's proposals would do much to help the 1.4 million uninsured people in the state find coverage.

McCrory wants to restart executions in the state, though the capital punishment system is plagued with error and racial bias. Perdue wants to let state courts sort out the current controversy about the role of doctors in executions, but then made sure viewers knew she is a strong supporter of the death penalty and said it is a deterrent, which studies show is blatantly false.

But what's a little pandering on the capital punishment, which was topped in the debate only by her proud reminder that she led the charge last week to make sure community colleges deny admission to undocumented students even if they can pay out of state tuition.

After boasting of slamming the higher education door in kids faces, Perdue said "safety first, safety first," as if the students who wanted to continue their education were a terrorist threat.

One viewer asked about reducing or eliminating the state gas tax and the answers summed up the hour-long maddening discussion perfectly. McCrory said he would cut the state income tax first because high taxes are hurting North Carolina's economic development efforts.

North Carolina's overall taxes are not out of line with other states in the South and the state routinely is ranked as one of the most business friendly in the nation by corporate executives and economic development groups.

Perdue said she had to "fuss hard" at the General Assembly to convince lawmakers to freeze the state gas tax, preventing it from increasing as the wholesale price went up, reducing the amount of revenue the state has to fix its crumbling roads and bridges and build new highways.

Shortly after reminding viewers about her fussing, Perdue lamented that there wasn't enough state revenue to build the roads that were needed. 

One Raleigh pundit said that Perdue looked uncomfortable in the debate, smiling at odd times, and that McCrory delivered his lines more smoothly. That's overstating things a bit, but even if true is not much of compliment considering how shallow and misleading the lines were from both candidates.

Unless the level of debate picks up soon, it is going to feel like a long time until November.