Blumenthal, Alpert meet in Democratic Senate debate: Is “incrementalism” a four-letter word?

At a televised U.S. Senate debate Monday night, Merrick Alpert took the stage as an underdog trying to hook Democratic primary voters with calls for universal health care, diplomatic relations with Cuba and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, already ordained by pollsters and party regulars as the Democratic candidate-in-waiting, responded with all the zest of man who had just been read his Miranda rights: He had a right to remain silent, and he knew that anything he said could and eventually would be used against him in the general election by the Republican nominee.

Blumenthal stuck to well-trod ground. His only surprise came later on: He was a no-show at the post-debate press conference, a rarity for a man who does television interviews on vacation.

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Richard Blumenthal and Merrick Alpert at Democratic U.S. Senate debate (Hartford Courant pool photo)

His press secretary said Blumenthal had a “meet and greet” and fundraiser at a private home in Fairfield County. The quick exit was planned: His campaign had Comptroller Nancy S. Wyman standing by as a surrogate.

Alpert and Blumenthal met at the University of Hartford, where the three Republicans–Rob Simmons, Linda McMahon and Peter Schiff–will debate tonight at 7 p.m., live on FoxCT. Both debates are being sponsored by The Courant and FoxCT.

“We will hear a lot tonight about how Washington is broken and corrupt and in fact probably tomorrow night,” Blumenthal said. “In fact, everyone is saying Washington is broken and corrupt. Washington is saying that Washington is broken and corrupt.”

Blumenthal said the challenge for voters will be to decide who can do something about it.

Alpert jabbed at Blumenthal all evening, characterizing the Democratic Party’s most popular office holder and its top vote-getter as a “career politician” and an “incrementalist,” too cautious to stir up Washington.

Blumenthal parried with familiar talking points assembled over his 20 years as attorney general, highlighting a record of suing big tobacco, big pharma and other “powerful, wealthy special interests.”

“For me, incrementalism is not necessarily a dirty word,” Blumenthal said. “Step by step, getting it done, producing and delivering, that’s what I’ve done for 20 years.”

“I think incrementalism is a dirty word,” Alpert replied. “I think incrementalism is the difference between the two of us.”

It is one difference. Another is Blumenthal’s exalted status among party regulars. Alpert complained that he cannot get permission to address nearly half the Democratic town committees.

Alpert is a lawyer who worked for Bill Clinton’s health-reform campaign in 1991, enlisted in the National Guard, served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and returned to start two small businesses.

This is his first run for elective office.

He became a candidate in May, offering himself as an alternative to a politically wounded U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who quit the race in January. Since then, Alpert has been trying to become more than a footnote to the story of Dodd’s retirement.

On Monday, he tried to give the liberal Democrats who will turn out in force in the August primary reasons to give him a second look.

He proposed providing universal health care by offering Medicare, the federal health plan for persons age 65 and older, to every man, woman and child. He did not explain how the U.S. could pay for the expansion.

Without reduced costs or new revenues, Medicare is facing insolvency in 2017.

Asked about Cuba, Blumenthal said the U.S. should “move in the direction of normalization” once the Fidel Castro and his brother are gone and Cubans in the U.S. are reconciled to the idea.

“I would normalize relations with Cuba, period,” Alpert said. “I think it is absolutely shameful we continue this silliness.”

Blumethal said the normalization will happen eventually.

“The question is how to get there,” he said. “I would hope I would be part of that process, working step by step.”

Both candidates said they would let the Bush tax cuts expire.

After the debate, Alpert said he drew a contrast between himself and Blumenthal.

“America has enormous economic difficulties right now, and incrementalism and career politicians is what’s got us into this mess,” Alpert said. “And the only way we’re going to get out of this mess is by something big and bold.”

Blumenthal was unavailable for comment.