In Whitefish, Candidates Debate Economy, Immigration and Gulf Spill

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Both Democrat Dennis McDonald and Republican Denny Rehberg reached back into history for examples of how to improve the economy during a debate Sunday between candidates for Montana’s lone Congressional seat, where topics ranged from immigration to the oil spill in the Gulf.

“It looks like we’re on the precipice of a double-dip recession,” McDonald said, pointing to the federal government’s move to tighten spending in 1937 as a reason the Great Depression was prolonged. “What’s really wrong here is not following what we’ve learned in history.”

McDonald, a Melville rancher running for office for the first time, called for policies that, “invest in people, not corporations,” as a way to spur the present sluggish economy and lower unemployment.

But incumbent Rehberg, seeking his sixth term, was quick to rebut McDonald, calling for slashing taxes on corporations, capital gains, payrolls and balancing the budget as the best steps the federal government could take to grow the sluggish economy, citing similar measures taken in 1961, 1981 and 2001 as examples.

“What’s he’s talking about is investing in people through government spending,” Rehberg said. “Government spending does not stimulate the economy.”

The hour-long debate, held at the Grouse Mountain Lodge as part of the Montana Broadcasters Association’s annual convention, was moderated by Gregory MacDonald, the MBA’s president and CEO. With no statewide offices up for grabs in 2010, the campaign for Congress is the highest-profile race in Montana. Both this debate, and the one held in Bozeman June 19, set up federal spending and the economy as the key issues in a national conversation growing ever more bitter in Washington D.C.

Libertarian Mike Fellows also participated in the debate, casting blame on partisan bickering and rampant spending between Democrats and Republicans as the chief causes of “the boat wreck of our economy,” and suggested reducing regulation and eliminating the income tax as the best ways to improve Montana’s economy.

Through the course of the debate, McDonald sought to portray Rehberg has someone who doesn’t work hard and offers no ideas for solutions to the nation’s problems. Without specifically bringing up Rehberg’s injuries in a boat accident on Flathead Lake last year where the driver, state Sen. Greg Barkus, faces charges for being drunk at the time, McDonald said voters should look at “Congressman Rehberg’s personal behavior.”

Rehberg, meanwhile, described himself as someone familiar and consistent to Montanans, who has traveled the state holding town hall meetings and who will continue to push back against Democratic control of both the House and Senate.

“I’m tested, I’m tried, you know who I am, you know what I stand for,” Rehberg said.

On immigration, Rehberg touted his work toward securing the northern border and blasted the Obama Administration for “standing in the way.” He went on to say he supported programs that penalize those who employ illegal aliens, and would not support any immigration reform package that allows illegal immigrants currently in the United States to earn citizenship.

McDonald called the debate over immigration one that points out “the silly political bickering that is continuing in Washington,” adding that he would support securing the border first, then enacting a “program where you can earn citizenship.”

No candidate, when asked about the BP oil spill, said the ongoing environmental catastrophe warrants ending deep-water drilling for oil. Instead, McDonald pointed out campaign contributions Rehberg has accepted from oil companies, and said better regulation is necessary to prevent accidents like Gulf spill.

“I believe we have the technology to drill in deep water and to do it without the damage we’re experiencing,” McDonald said. “But regulate it.”

Rehberg said the accident underscores his support for a “comprehensive energy plan,” that encompassed both fossil fuels and renewable energy sources.

“Do we need offshore drilling? It has a point, it has a purpose,” Rehberg said, pivoting into an attack on Obama for not responding to the oil spill fast enough, and cited the quick response by public officials to the recent tornado damage to a Billings arena as an example the president should follow.

“It doesn’t seem like (Obama) learned anything from Katrina,” Rehberg said.

When asked what would constitute success in the Afghanistan War, Rehberg described it as “Isolate, identify, stabilize, so the country can take care of itself,” criticizing Obama’s implementation of a timeline for withdrawal.

McDonald painted a bleaker picture, questioning whether there could be a positive outcome for the U.S. in that conflict.

“It’s hard for me to see a victory,” McDonald said. “At the end of the day, we have to balance the strategic need in that area with the notion that these two wars are making us poor.”

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