BRIDGEPORT — In their last debate before next Tuesday’s elections, 4th District Democratic Congressman Jim Himes and his Republican challenger, Steve Obsitnik, repeated the same messages they have throughout the campaign, and — as in past debates — struggled to define their differences.
“I agree with Mr. Obsitnik on this point,” was a phrase uttered a few times by Himes during the debate Friday, while Obsitnik, too, was caught more than once saying a version of “Congressman Himes said it right.”
The debate, sponsored by AARP, focused on Medicare and Social Security. The health care program for seniors has become a central part of the 2012 campaign across the country due to Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s controversial plan to turn it into a voucher program. But Obsitnik and Himes largely agreed Friday on how to ensure the long-term security of both Social Security and Medicare.
Both said Medicare should be preserved by lowering the cost of health care, reducing waste and abuse in the system, and improving the quality of care, though they offered few specifics on how to achieve those goals. Obsitnik’s one specific — his oft-quoted idea to apply credit-card technology to Medicare cards — was praised by Himes.
Both also agreed that the plan recommended by the President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility sets a good framework for fixing Social Security. The bipartisan panel is also known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission for its two co-chairmen, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.
One key difference that came out during the debate was the question of whether either candidate would consider raising the eligibility age for Medicare. Himes said he would not. “You can’t just go out there and easily find a job at age 65,” he said of seniors who would be affected by the change. “To find one with health insurance is unrealistic.”
Obsitnik called Himes’ position an example of partisanship and unwillingness to compromise.
“Simpson-Bowles says we should look at eligibility age. If President Obama puts forward a thoughtful proposal, I will support that proposal as well,” Obsitnik said.
The eligibility age for Medicare was one of the very few details discussed during the nearly 90-minute debate, despite panelists’ attempts to ask for specific plans from the candidates on how to solve the nation’s problems. Asked how the tax code should be reformed, both candidates repeated each other, nearly verbatim: Simplify the tax code, broaden the tax base, and lower the rates — but neither added any more details.
The struggle to define differences between the two candidates will likely be a bigger disadvantage for Obsitnik, a Navy veteran and businessman in the technology industry who has never run for political office before. Himes, a former Wall Street executive who left his job to join a nonprofit and then ran for public office, is now a two-term congressman, and already has a strong base of voters and fundraisers. Obsitnik is still relatively unknown in the district.
“The facts are the facts,” Himes said over and over again on Friday, pointing out high unemployment on state and national levels, and skyrocketing deficits and debt. Himes pushed back, telling the audience, “In the absence of specific answers from my opponent, you’re getting this hazy concept [of him] … you know me. You know that I listen to you.”
Still, despite the fact that Himes is an incumbent, the 4th District seat belonged to moderate Republican Chris Shays for decades until Himes won by a slim margin in 2008. And the National Republican Congressional Committee recently showed renewed interest in the race, running advertisements for Obsitnik that showcase his experience as an entrepreneur and his service in the Navy.
The new life that has been injected into the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Mitt Romney may also bode well for Obsitnik, who has borrowed many pages from Romney’s playbook throughout the campaign.
“Four years later, are you better off?” he asked the audience as the debate drew to a close. “You can choose to send a job creator to Washington.”