What wasn’t said during the first of two gubernatorial debates between incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic challenger James Smith was more telling than what was said.
Smith got in a couple of good jabs, criticizing the governor for being less bold on everything from education to health care.
“We need a governor that cares more about our future than the next primary election,” Smith said.
McMaster, defending himself in a southern drawl that was a lot thicker than it was 30 years ago, punched back with economics lessons that smacked of pure, GOP party playbook trickle-down economics. History and economics, he said, show reducing taxes and regulation increases prosperity. (The jury may still be out on that claim. Just look at how Kansas suffered after huge tax cuts in 2012.)
Nevertheless, the debate was, simply put, kind of boring. The status quo lived on. Viewers saw too many political platitudes thrown out as unseasoned, overcooked meat to sate an audience as tribalized and divided as the state and nation.
The two candidates danced and feinted, but there were no major punches landed. Their “debate” was mostly safe, as if each were more worried about making a mistake than really giving voters good information about what they would actually do as governor.
So let’s look at what wasn’t said in the hour-long debate in a performance hall at Francis Marion University in Florence.
In a state with pockets of some of the highest, enduring poverty in the nation, there wasn’t much talk about how to lift up all South Carolinians from a basement they’ve been in too long. The candidates talked about too-high college tuition, but didn’t really give much insight into how to fix it.
Just weeks after storms that pummeled South Carolina, candidates were pretty vague about what specifically they would do to prepare for future storms. Smith called for more investment in infrastructure. McMaster touted his leadership in recent storms and called for the establishment of a new commission of experts to look into the problem. Just what we need. Another government commission.
A good example of the dance that was going on between both candidates was the seeming unwillingness to answer reporter Andy Shain’s questions about sales tax exemptions — the more than 80 tax breaks that have gone to special interests since the 1950s. Because of these breaks, the state does not receive more than $3 billion — yes, billion — in tax revenue that could go to schools, hospitals, jobs programs, colleges, law enforcement, prisons and more.
Smith, like McMaster, said he supported comprehensive tax reform, but didn’t really say which tax exemptions he wanted to reduce or cut. McMaster stuck to the trickle-down economics playbook by saying, “When you eliminate an exemption, you’re raising taxes. I want to have comprehensive tax reform, but I want them to go lower, not up.” Interestingly, earlier this month, McMaster told The Post and Courier something slightly different: “We must eliminate some exemptions to simplify our tax code,” according to an Oct. 14 story.
Something else that didn’t come up: President Donald Trump. McMaster, the first statewide elected official to endorse Trump, touted his close relationship with the president during the contentious Republican primary. But that relationship was almost invisible during the debate. And Smith, backed by vocal supporters in the audience, didn’t try to score any knockout punches by bringing up the president.
It was also surprising that there wasn’t much talk about two utilities that abandoned a nuclear power plant in Fairfield County, a debacle that cost $9 billion.
Best lines of the night:
Smith, in an opening statement on McMaster’s record of moving South Carolina forward: “Henry, if this is winning, I would hate to see what losing looks like to you.”
McMaster on taxes: “The answer to economic growth and prosperity is lower taxes and lower taxes.”
Ronald Reagan: “There you go again.” (Actually, Smith invoked the line after being criticized by McMaster on taxes. McMaster interrupted that Smith was using a GOP quote from a 1980 debate between then President Jimmy Carter and GOP candidate Ronald Reagan. The wordplay gave the highly-charged audience an early laugh.)
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.