Analysis: Hinckley proves a worthy adversary for WhitehouseOctober 23rd, 2012 at 10:21 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Barry Hinckley’s star will be on the rise after Tuesday night’s WPRI 12 debate.
He didn’t land a crushing blow on Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, but the software entrepreneur turned in a more polished performance than his fellow Republicans, Brendan Doherty and Michael Riley, the other two first-time congressional candidates vying to unseat a Rhode Island Democrat this fall.
Not that Whitehouse had a bad night – the freshman senator was competent and comfortable, especially since he hasn’t taken the stage for a TV debate against a Republican opponent in six years. Like his colleague David Cicilline, Whitehouse has an easy time defending the Democratic Party’s major policies, and he mostly avoided “Senate-ese disease” by keeping his answers focused on average Rhode Islanders’ concerns rather than legislative minutiae.
WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming said the debate had no clear winner, and Hinckley surpassed expectations for a political newcomer with an aggressive confidence that improved as the debate wore on. The problem for Hinckley: fighting to a draw doesn’t change the underlying dynamic of the election, which Whitehouse was winning by 26 points in the last WPRI 12 poll.
Whitehouse’s strategy was a familiar one that works well in Rhode Island: portray Hinckley as a likely ally of vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, someone who would undermine Social Security and Medicare while bringing back the policies of the Bush administration. Hinckley complicated that, however, by putting considerable distance between himself and the national GOP: he called the Bush years “a train wreck” that led him to leave the party for a time; backed abortion rights and gay marriage; and said taxes on the rich will have to rise.
Whitehouse, on the other hand, saw no need to put distance between himself and his party except (sort of) when he agreed with Mitt Romney that President Obama should declare China a currency manipulator. Whitehouse backed the Affordable Care Act, attacked the Citizens United decision and called for higher taxes on the wealthy – no surprises there. He also sought to downplay his 96% party-line vote score, name-checking Simpson-Bowles and Wyoming Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi while calling the corporate tax code “a monstrosity.”
Whitehouse didn’t run away from Rhode Island’s dismal 10.5% unemployment rate, either. “I understand how difficult the situation is,” he said in his opening remarks, calling it “a time of suffering” for many voters. Unlike some Democrats who have struggled to offer any short-term plans to deal with unemployment, Whitehouse returned repeatedly to his push for more spending on infrastructure projects, a policy with bipartisan support that today is probably the most politically palatable form of stimulus.
Hinckley made a number of interesting points. He offered an intriguing argument for his candidacy when he said one reason Rhode Islanders should elect a Republican to Congress is so he could use his office to push state lawmakers to enact more effective policies. While it’s hard to imagine Gordon Fox or Teresa Paiva Weed throwing out their agendas on Hinckley’s say-so, the need for partisan balance can be an effective argument in largely one-party states like Rhode Island.
Another interesting exchange was on foreign policy, when Hinckley sounded an isolationist note by arguing for reduced foreign aid to hostile governments and a less robust American military presence abroad. Whitehouse countered with a traditional internationalist argument, citing Republicans who disagree with Hinckley and suggesting his proposals could damage Israel. Whitehouse also had a good moment when he was asked about the recent attack in Libya and pivoted to recall the dangers his own father faced as a career diplomat.
In the end, this probably isn’t the year for Barry Hinckley. The presidential contest has nationalized most federal races, which in Rhode Island benefits down-ballot Democrats like Whitehouse and Cicilline by amplifying their message and boosting their party’s turnout. Yet it’s easy to imagine how Hinckley’s message – socially liberal, fiscally conservative, relatively nonpartisan – could resonate with an electorate that is almost 50% independents. His performance Tuesday night suggests Hinckley could have a bright political future even if he doesn’t win on Nov. 6.
• Related: Watch the full Whitehouse-Hinckley WPRI 12 debate (Oct. 23)