WALLA WALLA – At the fourth and final debate between Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her Democratic opponent, Lisa Brown, two different descriptions of 2018 emerged.
The incumbent, a leader of the party that controls Congress and the White House, told of a “booming” economy in an America that leads the world.
“What a difference two years makes,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Her opponent, hoping to be part of a Democratic takeover of Congress, issued warnings of a broken political system, incompetent government leaders who have doubled the national debt in two years and a congresswoman who has voted to strip Americans’ health care protections “dozens” of times.
“Instead of running on her record, she’s running away from her record on health care,” Brown said.
The debate Wednesday night at Walla Walla Community College, put on by the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce and Northwest Public Broadcasting, covered a host of topics – such as immigration and environmental regulations – relevant to the agricultural community surrounding this quiet college town.
Like previous debates, however, it was the economy and health care that really separated, and enlivened, the two candidates.
Brown, a former economics professor and former legislator representing Spokane, said the three types of economies in Eastern Washington – natural resource, health and agricultural – were being hurt by President Donald Trump and Republican leaders.
“This Congress has acted irresponsibly, doubling the national debt in two years. We need leadership that knows fiscal responsibility,” Brown said. She said she would invest in education and infrastructure as “a way to really grow the economy.”
McMorris Rodgers pointed to the “12,000 new jobs, this year, in Eastern Washington” as the most important sign of prosperity and credited Congress for spurring such growth. “The job is the opportunity.”
Brown, however, pointed to the trade policies of Trump, specifically the tariffs he’s imposed, as the “biggest threat we face.” She noted that Congress had the authority to take the lead on trade, but hadn’t under Republicans. She also said that Congress has failed to protect the farmers of Eastern Washington by not passing a farm bill.
McMorris Rodgers said she has “opposed President Trump’s across-the-board tariffs,” but said she was “encouraged” by the new trade deals with Canada and Mexico.
“We need to modernize our trade agreements and we need to do it with farmers in mind,” she said.
She promised to get a farm bill “done by the end of the year.”
On the environment, McMorris Rodgers denied that the Trump administration was rolling back environmental regulations, earning cries of disbelief from an audience told to stifle its reactions.
Instead, McMorris Rodgers criticized “bureaucrats” in Washington, D.C., who she said thought they knew better than local residents.
“It can be done locally. The Walla Walla way,” she said.
Pushing back, Brown said Trump is indeed “rolling back protections on clean water and rolling back the clean power plan.”
“We here in Eastern Washington have so much to gain from a clean energy economy,” she said. “We can help lead the way.”
Brown later continued her criticism of Trump’s environmental policies after a question from the audience brought up climate change.
“It was wrong to withdraw form the Paris climate accords,” she said, adding that she would stand up to the “deniers that climate change is even occurring. It’s one of the largest threats on the planet. … I will listen to scientists.”
McMorris Rodgers said she wanted to understand what was driving the change in climate, but said government mandates weren’t the solution. Private innovation, she said, would solve the problem, and added that the U.S. and Eastern Washington are leaders in driving down harmful emissions.
“Cathy is wrong. This nation is not leading. This nation is absent from the international stage,” she said, adding that the U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of such gases. “We need national leadership on this issue.”
On immigration, both said they agreed immigrants play an important role in American society, but differed on how best to deal with the crisis at the border.
“What’s happening at the border, separating children and parents, is immoral,” Brown said. Her solution to the immigration issue would give a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers and reform the “broken” guest worker program.
McMorris Rodgers said “both parties have failed to deliver a bill to fix our broken immigration system,” and that she wanted to institute a merit-based visa so immigrants “can have some confidence that they can be here and get a longer term visa.”
When it came time to direct questions at each other, the candidates revealed the core of the debate, and the gulf between them.
Brown asked McMorris Rodgers why she voted to strip federal protections for people with pre-existing conditions seeking health care.
“Protecting those with pre-existing condition is supported by both Democrats and Republicans. This is a situation where we agree,” McMorris Rodgers said, noting that her votes to repeal Obamacare came because it “did not fulfill its promises.”
“We were told premiums would come down,” she said. “We were told if you liked you doctor, you could keep your doctor. None of that happened.”
McMorris Rodgers has spoken before about the need to keep protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and points to her son, who has Down Syndrome, as a reason why she supports such protections. But law experts largely concur that the American Health Care Act, the proposed GOP replacement for the Affordable Care Act that McMorris Rodgers backed, would have weakened protections for people with pre-existing conditions in at least some circumstances.
Like other Republican candidates this year, McMorris Rodgers has strayed away from her long-standing pledge to eliminate the 2010 health insurance law.
Between January 2011 and March 2014, House Republicans, which count McMorris Rodgers as one of its leaders, voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 54 times. The final vote in the House to repeal the law, which is sometimes known as Obamacare, came in May 2017, which passed 217-213, with McMorris Rodgers’ support. Sen. John McCain cast a memorable “thumbs down” vote to block repeal in the Senate that September.
McMorris Rodgers was the sole Washington state lawmaker to vote to repeal the law in 2017.
McMorris Rodgers’ question for Brown dealt with taxes and the economy. She asked why Brown “sued the people of Washington state” to make it “easier to raise taxes,” referring to a lawsuit brought by the Legislature a decade ago challenging the supermajority requirement to raise taxes that was inserted into the law by an initiative.
“I believed it was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court thought it was unconstitutional,” she said, referring to the state’s highest court. “I’ve always supported fair taxes.”
Buttressing the question was McMorris Rodgers’ continued statements that the economy is “booming” under Trump and the Republicans, primarily due to this year’s changes to the tax code. She largely focused on job creation.
According to the Washington state Employment Security Department, Spokane County’s unemployment rate in September 2018 was 4.4 percent, matching the state’s rate. Districtwide, Ferry County had the highest unemployment rate at 7.5 percent and Adams County the lowest, at 3.4 percent.
The last time Spokane County’s unemployment was at levels this low occurred in early 2000, when it dropped to 3.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
McMorris Rodgers said “the American way has done more to lift people out of poverty” than any other political system, and said “hope and optimism is at a 20-year high.”
“What a change to two years ago,” she said, again. “Let’s not go back. Let’s keep striving to a positive future.”
Brown was not about to credit Trump with the economy, and even argued that the economy wasn’t as good as McMorris Rodgers described.
“Farm income is at 14-year low and our farmers are currently paying the price for President Trump’s misguided policies,” she said. “There is a lot at stake in this election.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.