The Republican candidates for U.S. Senate leaned on their diverse backgrounds to explain positions on issues ranging from the economy and debt reduction to gay marriage Wednesday.
Gabriel Gomez, a former Navy SEAL and businessman from Cohasset, said that hearing from a variety of perspectives served him well in the military and that he would bring those lessons to bear working with fellow Republicans and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
State Rep. Dan Winslow (R-Norfolk), saying "Obamacare is bad for Massachusetts" and simply layers federal bureacracy on top of the state's system, highlighted an upcoming legislative proposal on Beacon Hill to reduce health care costs.
Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan talked about making cuts to his budget at the Department of Justice and added that he would start by trimming fat in the federal budget while leaving vital military funding intact.
Wednesday night's debate, sponsored by the Boston Media Consortium and held at the Channel 5 studios in Needham, featured all five declared Republican and Democratic candidates for the first time in one place.
During the Republicans' 30 minutes, moderator R.D. Sahl kept a tight rein on response times, allowing some back-and-forth between candidates but getting through several topic areas and ending on a foreign policy question for both parties.
A Postmortem on the GOP
The Republican National Committee recently issued a report that included a call for members to reach out more to minorities and moderate their tone on social issues.
Winslow made the strongest pitch for rebranding Wednesday night. He reminded the audience that the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, of freedom and respect for individual opportunity, and that it needs to better incorporate women, millennials and "new Americans."
"We have to show them we're not the 'Grand Old Party' anymore," Winslow said.
Gomez, sounding many of the same notes, said he does not need a 100-page report to tell him what the people want.
Sullivan said the party should focus on areas like fiscal stability, national security and energy.
"I’m proud to be a Republican," Sullivan said... “We connect with people best when we listen to people about their concerns.”
With oral arguments on gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, a question about the Defense of Marriage Act drew consensus. All three candidates declared that the federal government should not put itself between Americans and their decision to marry.
"I’m a federalist at heart," Sullivan said. "Things like the definition of marriage are best left to the democratic process.”
Winslow agreed, saying that government is most effective closest to the people. "I don’t like to have the federal government where we can avoid it. I think it’s a shame the Supreme Court has to decide this issue."
"If two people are in love, they should be able to get married, irrespective," Gomez said.
Balancing the Budget
The U.S. debt stands at $16 trillion and members of Congress have failed to pass a consensus budget that would reduce spending by a significant percentage of that debt. As government officials look for ways to trim spending, restructuring Medicare and Social Security, two of the largest areas of federal expenditures, often enter the conversation.
Sahl asked the candidates how Congress can tackle the debt and maintain those social safety nets.
Social Security is one of the most successful government programs in the nation's history, Winslow said. "It’s an old house. It needs renovation. But we have to make sure we preserve the house.”
Because "Congress is incapable of making complicated actuarial decisions," Winslow said he would like to see a commission put in place that would look at how to maintain the program for generations to come.
Deferring those responsibilities to a non-elected body is not the right decision, Sullivan said. "I would stand up and make difficult choices."
Sullivan said the first step is to address the nation's deficits and debt. But he and the other candidates were mostly short on specifics when it came to how they would do that.
Gomez said he support means testing benefits – "Warren Buffet probably doesn’t need his full benfits on Social Security," he said. Winslow also offered up fixing the program's disability fund, which could reach insolvency in 2016 and lead to the reduction of benefits.
When Winslow pressed Sullivan on specific debt reduction measures, Sullivan said that he would go after the 3 to 5 percent of government spending that has been identified as waste and generally trimming budgets across every department.
Sullivan also questioned Gomez on budgetary matters. During the debate and afterward, Sullivan repeated the line that someone needs more than "household budget" experience to be a Senator.
Gomez countered, saying that he sat on the boards of private companies with budgets in some cases in the billions of dollars. "People don’t want someone who has been in politics the majority of their life," he added.
Abortion, Nuclear Weapons and Ben Bernanke
Candidates split on the abortion question, with Sullivan and Gomez stating their pro-life positions and Winslow saying he is pro-choice and a "big tent Republican when it comes to social issues."
"I’m Catholic," Gomez said. "I'm pro-life. But I’m not going down to DC to change the law.”
Sullivan also said that he has been pro-life his entire life, but that "we have to be practical in terms of solutions." Educating young pregnant women and streamlining the adoption process are two positive answers, he said, but a pro-life constitutional amendment – as promoted by the GOP's national platform – is not.
On the threat of nuclear weapons posed by Iran and North Korea, Winslow said tightened sanctions are the best route, and that the U.S. should not let opportunities go by like the 2009 Iranian election protests.
Gomez and Sullivan agreed that Israel's safety should be the "tripwire" that decides U.S. action on Iran.
"We need to do everything we can to protect and support Israel," Gomez said.
Each candidate also said that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke should be replaced and that the Affordable Care Act should be repealed.
Also check out Patch's coverage of the Democratic debate: http://patch.com/A-3jRs