Corporate Personhood Takes Stage At Debate

Linda McMahon came out for corporations’ “free speech rights” in bankrolling campaigns—then said that, unlike her opponent, Chris Murphy, she doesn’t need their money.

The burning question of “corporate personhood” prompted the most revealing exchange Monday night as the Republican McMahon and Democrat Murphy squared off in the third debate of their neck-and-neck race to replace Joe Lieberman in the U.S. Senate. It offered not one but two different ways of looking at the issue.

The hour-long debate at New London’s Garde Arts Center produced other clear differences between the two candidates, especially on the role of tax cuts versus government investment in re-charging the economy. And, when it came to McMahon skipping a chance to brand her opponent a “liberal” in order to try and seize the moderate “independent” label for herself, the debate showed a difference an election cycle or two can make in the way politicians present themselves to voters.

A blow-by-blow live blog and analysis of the debate appears further down in this story.

Mark Davis of WTNH, one of the debate’s sponsors, asked the candidates if they would support a constitutional amendment overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, in the Citizens United case, to define corporations as people in terms of enjoying free-speech rights. That opened the door to unlimited corporate cash in this year’s election cycle.

Murphy jumped at the chance to blast the decision and embrace the amendment. He then used the opening to bring up McMahon’s personal wealth; she poured $50 million into her unsuccessful 2010 Senate campaign and appears on a similar spending trajectory this time around. Murphy spoke of the dangers of having wealthy people buy elections.

In responding, McMahon didn’t address the personhood question. Instead, she pointed out that, unlike Murphy, she doesn’t accept political action committee money (one avenue for corporations and unions to influence elections). In effect, she made the Bloomberg argument: That by enjoying her own wealth and bankrolling her own campaigns, she is insulated from the influence of “special interests.” Unlike people like Murphy or most other office-seekers, who have debts. That’s been Michael Bloomberg’s basic rationale for buying three terms as new York’s mayor.

WTNH’s Davis pressed McMahon to answer the original query, and then she did: Unlike Murphy, she said she would not support the amendment. She agreed with the Supreme Court majority’s argument that corporations should enjoy the same “free speech” rights—translated into the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns—as breathing human beings.

That gave Murphy another opportunity, to decry the ability of “anonymous corporations” to “corrupt democracy” by “buying elections.”

In brief interviews with reporters after the debate, McMahon reiterated her position that a corporation exercises a First Amendment right by buying a campaign ad. Murphy was asked about McMahon’s point about being freed from special-interest influence.

“I support a clean-election fund at the federal level just like we have one at the state level,” Murphy said. “I’m going to fight very hard as a senator to rid campaigns of private money, both on the candidate side and through outside groups.”

Much of the post-election spin discussion, however, focused on whether it was OK for McMahon supporters to cheer and jeer without permission during the debate—as though that mattered more than, say, foreign affairs, about which the debate included one question (bomb Iran?), on which both candidates agreed. (Answer: Only as a last resort.)

Meanwhile, questions about the retiring Lieberman’s legacy showed how the political needle has moved in a presidential year. The New London Day’s Paul Choiniere noted that the liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave Lieberman a C report card and Murphy, a sitting Congressman, an A rating. He asked whether that means Connecticut would trade a moderate senator for a “liberal.”

McMahon, who in the Tea Party-influenced 2010 election ran as an anti-liberal candidate, passed up the chance to brand Murphy a liberal.

Instead, she tried her best—as she has in her advertising—to avoid the word “conservative” for herself this time, and instead brand herself a “moderate” and “independent” “pro-choice” candidate. That’s where both sides apparently see a potential advantage: by appealing to moderate female voters turned off by national Republican extremists.

Details of that exchange and most others—but not about who interrupted whom, whose supporters were more obnoxious, who has a more honest jobs plan, or who lies more (you’ll have to skip over the bracketed “blanks” in those parts)—follow in the live-blog below:

6:48 p.m. The two sides had raucous rallies outside on the street before the debate. (Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to meet some of McMahon’s supporters.)

6:51 Former State Rep. Sid Holbrook, the current head of New Haven’s Water Pollution Control Authority, is back here sitting with the press. He senses a blood bout: “We came for the show!”

6:57 New London Day Gary Farrugia is welcoming people. I’m a fan of what he’s done with the Day; they’re owned by a not-for-profit trust and have maintained a true commitment to local journalism and to hosting good debates over the years.

7 p.m. The moderator is WTNH morning anchor Darren Kramer. He and the candidates have taken the stage of this lovely theater. He trying to quiet the “Linda! Linda!” chants. Let’s see if he passes the Jim Lehrer test and can take control. Asking questions: WTNH’s Mark Davis and Day Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere.

7:02 Davis reads and updates a question from New Haven’s Julia Rodriguez: What makes you think you would be able to get your own jobs bill passed in a Senate where you’d be a rookie?

McMahon: “I do have a plan. I six-point [blank] ...” She says she can get it passed because “it is a comprehensive plan. It is a growth plan.” Not at all addressing how the Senate works. Then she mentions Murphy’s [blank].

7:03. Davis presses. How will you get it passed? McMahon: “The normal way ... Bring it to the well.”

7:05 Murphy: You can’t just introduce it as a bill. He acknowledges he can’t just get it passed “word for word.” “You have to work with Democrats and Republicans” to build support to get it introduced—something he says he had more experience doing because he has legislative experience. McMahon has sought to use Murphy’s experience against him by portraying herself as the political outsider.

7:08 p.m. Choiniere asks Murphy if he’s a protectionist given his “Buy American” proposal. Murphy offers a “free trade but fair trade” response—but then declares that he stands up for state manufacturers

McMahon: Repeats “free and fair” policy. Criticizes China for “not respecting our intellectual property rights.” Says we should work with the World Trade Organization to push China to abide by international agreements. Then she gets in a dig about Murphy always (98% of the time) voting with Democrats; she pushes the “I’m an independent thinker” line that has dominated much of her advertising in this presidential election year, with Obama running stronger than Romney in Connecticut.

Murphy responds with a dig about Murphy outsourcing jobs from WWE to China when she was CEO. McMahon has said that licensees made that call.

7:10 How to reinvigorate the middle class? McMahon: Cut income taxes to 15 percent and business tax rates from 25 to 15 percent. (Will moderators ask where the revenue or cuts come from to avoid worsening the deficit?)

“If more tax cuts for the wealthy created jobs, we weren’t be in the mess we’re in today,” Murphy responds. “That money doesn’t trickle down to everyone else.” Then he makes a crack about Linda and Vince McMahon’s personal [blank].

McMahon responds that she would raise taxes only for middle class, not the wealthy. Then she talks about how his plan, or non-plan, [blank]. Moderator scolds Linda supporters for violating the no-cheering rule. “Don’t make me send Mark Davis out there ...”

7:13 Davis presses Murphy: You’d cut off tax cuts for families making $250,000 or below. Are you saying everyone above that is “super-wealthy”? He argues that stretched small business owners make more than that and won’t be able to hire people if he doesn’t give them a tax cut. “That ought to be at least a million.”

Murphy disagrees. He says that everyone was paying higher tax rates in the 1990s—and “the economy was booming. The poor were becoming less poor. The wealthy were getting more wealthy.” This is a genuine Democratic-Republican difference: Murphy argues that taxes can be higher than the lower rates they’ve sunk to in the past decade, that the “wealthy can pay a little bit more,” that tax cuts for higher brackets don’t trickle down.

McMahon cites an unspecified “study” showing Murphy’s “plan” would cost 700,000 jobs. Then she says she would cut spending along with taxes; she argues that President Clinton “did both” in the 1990s. Murphy argues that Clinton’s tax rates were higher than today’s, and that money saved by the wealthy under the Bush tax cuts haven’t created jobs or otherwise gone back into new investments in their companies.

Then he attacks McMahon for her “job creation” at WWE: because the jobs lacked health insurance and endangered workers’ lives. That produces catcalls from McMahon’s supporters.

7:22 Would you Support Lieberman’s cyberattack legislation? They agree. “Congressman Murphy’s right. This is not partisan,” McMahon says.

7:24 What is federal government’s role in education?

McMahon: “We have incredible local school boards. … I don’t think one size fits all from Washington.” Yes, we should have some federal standards, but “we should take a look” at reducing the size of the federal Department of Education, not getting rid of it. She says teachers should get paid more—and it should be easier to push bad teachers out.

Murphy: No Child Left Behind has been a “disaster,” creating “test takers,” not “creative thinkers.” And it’s “sucking the joy out of learning” and teaching. But he argues that McMahon’s idea of tax cuts for the wealthy and broad budget cuts—with the military protected—would means education money will be cut. McMahon responds that tax cuts, for the middle class, are important to get people working and spending more money, to get the economy in better shape.

7:28: Wow! A question about the working poor! From Davis.

Murphy: Starts with schools. Better schools get the economy working—a response to McMahon saying moving the economy forward comes first.

McMahon, who served on state Board of Education under Gov. Rell: Yes, we want to improve the schools. But we need the economy going to make that happen. “My six-point plan will [blank] …”

“The rising tide will lift all boats,” she says.

7:32 Mark Davis: “That became popular under the Reagan administration … Ronald Reagan raised taxes.”

7:33 Social Security? Neither party answers honestly about this issue or Medicare during debates. McMahon talks about vague bipartisan efforts to strengthen the plans, without naming specifics that could get people mad. She brings up the Medicare “cut” canard about Obamacare that candidates have [blank] … Murphy says he would in fact adjust a cap for social security. Then he attacks McMahon for an alleged “sunset” statement McMahon once [blank] ...

7:17 Mark Davis, in classic style, is equally pointed in his questions to both candidates. He “turns around” his Murphy question, to McMahon: “You are quite wealthy.” How many jobs did you create with tax breaks in recent years?

McMahon: “Tax cuts do create jobs. … Businesses need to rely on certainty.” McMahon’s going on talking points avoiding directly answering a question that she probably can’t win on. Back instead to “I have a plan … A full six-point [blank].”

7:37 Choiniere notes that Americans for Democratic Action gives Murphy an A, departing Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman a C. Does that mean we’ll replace a moderate with a liberal, he asks?

Murphy says he’s proud of his record—and says he’ll follow Lieberman’s example of working with members of both parties on legislation. Then he starts another argument with McMahon about that “sunset” quote he unfairly bashed her with for [blank]. She adds her own fake charge that he voted to “take” hundreds of billions out of Medicare by approving a part of Obamacare that conservative Republicans including Paul Ryan approved to cut costs (not benefits) as a way to divert [blank] …

What about the question? Will she pass a chance to bash him for being a “liberal”? Or is that too 2010? Yes, she does avoid branding him a liberal. Interesting. Going for that moderate vote, not the Tea Party.

7:42 Here’s tonight’s big Murphy talking point: McMahon is portraying herself as pro-choice this year but backing Catholic hospitals that don’t want to provide emergency contraception for rape victims, a Connecticut law supported by both parties. And she expressed support for the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed any employers to avoid an Obamacare requirement to provide coverage for birth control. This is a potent issue Democrats are trying to turn into a breakthrough issue to appeal to moderate women. McMahon: “I’m a woman. I had a daughter I have three little granddaughters,” so she’d never “negatively impact their choice. I am a pro-choice candidate.” Then she says federal funds shouldn’t pay for abortion except in cases of rape and dangers to the life of the mother.

7:44 Davis asks whether they’d support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision to consider corporations “people” under the law, voiding campaign finance laws? Murphy says he’d support a constitutional amendment so ultra-wealthy people (anyone come to mind?) or wealthy interests can’t buy an election.

McMahon points out she doesn’t accept political action or special interest money—she’s spending her own. Those are two different issues when it comes to the role of money in politics. Murphy is trying to conflate them; she scores a point here separating them. There’s legitimate debate about whether a wealthy individual gets an unfair advantage by spending tens of millions of dollars to win a Senate seat, or whether that insulates her from special-interest influence (a la Bloomberg). It’s a different debate, at least on the question raised by Davis, from the corporate personhood question.

7:48 Davis presses McMahon to answer the question. She does now: Corporations should have “first amendment rights” to express their opinions, she says. Murphy responds that “anonymous corporations” shouldn’t “corrupt democracy” by “buying elections.”

7:51 Murphy says we “need a line in the sand” against Iran developing a nuclear weapon, but we need to keep the “focus” on economic and diplomatic sanctions. The military option should be a last resort, but on the table, he says. McMahon agrees.

Both sides are agreeing not to disagree or focus on foreign affairs—even though foreign affairs pose some of the most important votes for the next senator. They brought up Lieberman—but not his focus on foreign affairs, whether or not you agreed with him. In 2006, his support for the Iraq war was a major campaign issue, at least in the primary.

7:55 Murphy brings up Murphy supporting “six years of failed policies” as a congressman. She’s bringing up for the most part Obama’s policies during the recession. He’s been focusing on a different “failed record”: the Bush tax cuts and other Bush-era policies he blames for the recession.

8 Closing statements. Back to person [blanks] on both sides. Not a bad night overall!

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posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on October 16, 2012  12:07am

God she is so wealthy. Why would she want to sacrifice her time and money at this time in her life, to hold elected office, be abused by the press and public, for sacrificing your life and families lives, to serve an ungrateful public that does not even want to take the time to understand the processes of their own government? It makes no sense,......Unless Vince has figured out how to multiply their wealth tenfold by having his wife acquire the power of office of a US Senator, which they can corrupt, as they take advantage of those that trust them, and everyone else in Connecticut over the next six years! Wise Up.

posted by: Kaz on October 16, 2012  11:09am

ha! loved the video! “we need more women in congress.. and.. I don’t have any other reason.”, “I think she’s great!”

posted by: PH on October 16, 2012  11:49am

If wrestler McMahon wants to be elected for something, she can try for PTA board or a town council.  She has not shown the aptitude or proper understanding of the role of government in society to be elected to something as important as US Senator.  Just because you are rich doesn’t mean you can get everything you want!  Go back to your husband, I mean your corporation, and keep milking the poor of their money with senseless fake violence.  Our government is by, for and of the living breathing human people, not the fake paper corporate people.

posted by: ramonesfan on October 17, 2012  10:28pm

@ PH: I think the best office for her would be as mayor of Greenwich

@JustAnother: I can’t figure out why she wants to be a senator either.  It’s not like she enjoys taking the time to study foreign or domestic policy issues.  Outside of the wrestling or entertainment biz, she’s not much more knowledgeable than your average voter.  Her biggest motivation for running is probably wanting to extend the Bush era tax cuts, both for herself and her wealthy Greenwich friends.  As former Republican congressman Christopher Shays pointed out, she is a lousy excuse for a candidate.