It is a shame that this week's debate between Florida's two leading Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate was not televised statewide in prime time. The first encounter between Palm Beach billionaire investor Jeff Greene and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami was entertaining, enlightening — and entirely disappointing all at the same time. These are two seriously flawed candidates, and Democrats have a difficult choice to make just two months from today.
Meek and Greene disagreed little on public policy in Tuesday's debate sponsored by the Palm Beach Post. They oppose offshore oil drilling and favor pursuing clean energy. They vow to protect Social Security and Medicare without embracing specific solutions for extending their financial viability. They support allowing gay residents to adopt children and ending the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military. They compete to be the loudest defender of Israel. These are all predictable positions for Democrats aiming to win over the most partisan voters who turn out for a primary election.
Instead, the decision comes down to how much weight should be given to the considerable baggage each candidate carries. Greene made hundreds of millions of dollars on sophisticated investments that bet on the housing market collapse and defaults on subprime mortgages. He has yet to disclose the details of his personal finances, which could provide some needed clarity on his business activity since he has no record in elected office. But Greene offers a credible defense that he was smart enough to recognize the potential for the mortgage crisis long before Meek and other members of Congress who embraced the policies that helped trigger the collapse.
Meek asks voters to make an extraordinary leap of faith. He sought millions in federal dollars for a developer who paid his mother $90,000 in consulting fees, provided her a Cadillac Escalade and helped one of his top aides buy a house. Yet Meek concedes only that he would have fired the aide if he had known what was going on. He warned Greene to quit attacking his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, but she was not the target. The issue is Meek's credibility, and further investigation is warranted.
A year ago, Meek expected to glide to the Democratic nomination for Senate. Greene has made it a race by spending $4 million on television ads, and he is a viable alternative in a year when voters are fed up with incumbents and conventional politics. In such an atmosphere, Meek's emphasis of his Democratic roots and his criticism of Greene as a former Republican are oddly out of touch. The reality is that outside South Florida, neither candidate is a familiar name as they court a disenchanted electorate. Democrats ultimately will have to decide between a candidate whose blemishes are clear and one whose warts may not all be evident by Election Day.