By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Six years ago, a humble farmer from Big Sandy stepped out of the Montana Senate and into a race for the U.S. Senate opposite a powerful and well-funded Republican incumbent.
The Democratic challenger seemed tough in all the right places. He’d grown up on a farm in the small dot on the map of Big Sandy. He still lived there and worked his farm with his lovely wife Sharla.
He spoke with a kind of solemnity, warning that the Republican agenda was leading Montana — the nation — into mediocrity and debt-riddled woe.
Much like an undersized and overwhelmed boxer stepping into the ring with a world champion prizefighter, the Democratic challenger punched with nothing but soul.
And what soul: In a series of five debates in late 2006, the Democrat pounded Burns for the incumbent’s support of the Patriot Act. He landed body blows over Burns’ support for the war in Iraq.
And he hammered Burns on the nation’s exploding debt.
But this Democrat, then-State Sen. Jon Tester, was a different Jon Tester. He hoped talk of the debt — it more than doubled during the George W. Bush presidency — would serve as the knockout punch, a blow so severe it would usher Burns straight out of the Senate.
“What about the most egregious tax increase in all, that tax on our kids, ballooned over the five, six years to $30,000 per person?” Tester queried Burns in an October 20, 2006, debate in Great Falls.
“The fact of the matter is that Sen. Burns has never been able to balance his budget in private life and he’s not been able to do it in public life,” Tester chided just days earlier in that year’s Billings debate.
The Democrat’s argument ran like this: Republicans have saddled the nation with trillions in new debt, a burden that will hobble Montana’s children.
Tester laid the blame squarely on Burns, and cast himself as the only candidate who could ever return the country to fiscal conservatism. He cited as evidence his work to balance Montana’s state budget while serving in the state senate, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was one among many in a body constitutionally required to balance its books.
“The fact is you need people back there (in Washington D.C.) who have experience in balancing a checkbook and setting priorities,” Tester emphasized in the Bozeman debate on Oct. 10, 2006. “I’ve been able to balance a checkbook in the private sector and in the public sector.”
The vicious attack worked. On election night in 2006, Tester squeaked past Burns by a narrow 3,000-vote margin.
Quickly after Tester took office in January 2007, political rhetoric ran into reality. Gone was the eager and forceful Democratic candidate, replaced with a pragmatist of the highest order.
Through his first term, Tester’s done exactly what he excoriated Burns for doing: He’s voted for several debt-ceiling increases, hasn’t balanced the budget and added trillions to the national debt.
When Tester took office in 2007, the national debt hovered around $8.6 trillion, a hefty amount by any measure. According to USdebtclock.org, the national debt today sits at $16.2 trillion, nearly double.
Remember how the Democrat thumped Burns for supporting debt-limit hikes, except in election years? Well, Tester’s done that, too: Lawmakers have raised the debt limit seven times since 2007, with Tester supporting each vote.
Perhaps former President Bill Clinton’s critique of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, delivered at this year’s Democratic National Convention, could also retroactively apply to Tester.
“It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did,” Clinton told Democratic faithful of Ryan attacking President Barack Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare, a course the GOP candidate also took in his own budget plans.
And that talk of balancing the checkbook? Sure, it made for a good anecdote in an election year, but Tester quickly cast it off during his first term in office.
The U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats since Republicans took a shellacking at the polls in 2006, hasn’t passed a budget since April 29, 2009.
For those counting at home, that’s three-and-a-half years ago. Or about 1,280 days.
So, where’s that checkbook?
Tester’s might not be a case of hypocrisy so much as a tale of reality-based evolution.
Candidates often hammer opponents on important and unpopular votes and then face similar decisions in office.
For example, remember a low-profile Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois voting against the debt ceiling in 2006 — because the nation’s blooming debt revealed weakness in the White House?
“That fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” that senator said, fully posturing against the move. “It’s a sign that America can’t pay its own bills.”
That was Sen. Barack Obama, who apparently regrets that vote.
Tester’s followed a similar path.
In 2006, Tester offered no mention of why the debt ballooned — only that it did and Republicans were solely responsible. But Burns likely had his reasons for supporting the debt and spending increases. Burns likely saw the world through the prism of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a dystopian worldview that required massive increases in defense and homeland security spending.
Surely Conrad Burns had his reasons, right? Tester’s stance, though, wouldn’t give the Republican an inch in that fight.
Similarly, Tester possessed his own worldview that also required trillions in government spending for myriad programs. He supported Obama’s 2009 stimulus programs, a supposed jobs program designed to invest in critical economic sectors to jumpstart an economy hemorrhaging jobs at a torrid pace.
That law, supported only by congressional Democrats, cost a whopping $800 billion. Tester feels justified in his support of the measure, which added billions to the debt, because of the economic conditions at the time.
“The truth is we were on the cusp of going into a depression similar to the 1930s, and we had to do something,” Tester told CBS News recently.
So, it’s safe to assume that Tester, given his unique worldview through his Senate tenure, has his reasons for addition trillions and trillions to the national debt.
During last year’s negotiations over the increase up to $16.4 trillion, the latest benchmark, Tester went so far as to scold Republicans, including his challenger, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, for not simply going along with debt-ceiling increases. Not increasing the limit, he said then, would cause the nation to default on its debt, a first in U.S.
These days, Tester’s stump routine includes the assertion that the fiscal nightmare facing the nation requires spending reductions and tax increases on the wealthy.
Here’s eight minutes of Tester smashing Burns on the national debt in the 2006 debates and a couple TV ads:
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org, or @Dustinhurst via Twitter.