It wasn't prime time, but it was entertaining. Voters up early on Sunday saw a lively nationally televised U.S. Senate debate that reflected exactly what is wrong with Washington. Republican Marco Rubio refused to budge from his rigid positions on the economy and immigration. Democrat Kendrick Meek would not compromise on extending tax cuts. And Gov. Charlie Crist, the independent candidate, embraced practical approaches in his most energetic performance so far — and came under sharp attack from both sides.
The candidates covered familiar ground in the hourlong debate at the University of South Florida, sponsored by CNN, the St. Petersburg Times and USF. But the extended focus on two key issues offered new clarity and underscored why voters are so frustrated with Congress. The unwillingness of Rubio and Meek to venture from the orthodoxy embraced by their most partisan supporters leaves no opening for building consensus to move the nation forward.
Rubio called the federal stimulus a failure. He said the economic recovery is weak because of the federal deficit, health care reform, regulation and uncertainty about whether the Bush era tax cuts will expire. That makes Rubio popular with the tea party crowd and motivated Republican voters who have made him the front-runner, but it is out of touch with reality.
As Crist pointed out, the stimulus saved thousands of jobs in Florida and helped avoid an even bigger meltdown. Meek correctly noted that the stimulus also contained billions in payroll tax cuts and other relief that is rarely mentioned. And too little regulation of the mortgage industry and financial markets, not too much, helped create the conditions that burst the Florida housing bubble and triggered the recession.
Rubio wants to focus on the federal deficit, yet hypocritically pushes to extend all of the Bush tax cuts. It doesn't bother him that maintaining tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income earners would increase the deficit by $700 billion. In his world, deficit spending is bad if it saves middle class jobs but good if it covers tax cuts for the wealthy.
The Obama administration has signaled it is willing to negotiate on its position that the tax cuts be extended only for households making up to $250,000. But Rubio would not accept anything less than tax cuts for all, and Meek would not say what higher income limit might be acceptable. Crist was predictably practical: To ensure the middle class is protected, negotiate a compromise with the president on the income limit for the tax cut extension now, and go after more later.
The immigration discussion played out similarly. Crist embraces the same comprehensive approach unsuccessfully pushed by the Bush administration: Stronger border protections and a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country that includes paying fines, taxes and moving to the back of the applicant line. Rubio inaccurately derides a path to citizenship as amnesty. He illogically argues all illegal immigrants can be returned to their home countries and told to apply to come back.
Meek and Crist are correct: Rubio embraces an inflexible ideology, not practical solutions. The Republican leaves no room for compromise or consensus — and that is what is wrong with Washington.