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Opinion: Lee-McMullin debate shed some light, left much unanswered

A single, one-hour debate can’t confront all important questions. The hard work now is up to voters.

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Evan McMullin and incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee pose for photos prior to their debate at UVU.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Evan McMullin pose for photos prior to their debate at UVU in Orem on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Finally, on Monday, voters were given a bit of light to go along with the heat that has so-far overwhelmed the airways in the race for the U.S. Senate in Utah. 

The televised debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission and moderated by KSL’s Doug Wright, put incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee and independent challenger Evan McMullin on the same stage for the first and only time this election season. 

We are grateful for that, even if some were left wanting more.

Nevertheless, the debate was an interesting look into one of the most closely watched Senate races in the nation — one poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics has shown Lee leading by a narrow 41% to 37% margin among likely voters.

The Deseret News has a long history of not endorsing candidates in elections, but we enthusiastically endorse thoughtful, vigorous debate that helps voters make informed decisions. For those who wanted such a debate focused strictly on issues, this one was a limited success. For those who wanted definitive answers to important questions, it was, partially enlightening.

There were the expected tense moments, accusations, denials and calls for apologies. The events surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol and Lee’s alleged and disputed efforts to help President Trump in the days leading up to that were, not surprisingly, chief among these. 

Little light was shed there. That issue has been discussed to a point where the candidates’ positions Monday evening were predictable. Voters must decide which candidate comes closest to the truth and whether the issue is a determinative one.

And, unfortunately, neither man adequately confronted the negative ads being aired on their behalf by super PACs, which have been bombarding television and radio audiences of late. 

When the issues were discussed — the things each candidate would confront if elected — this debate helped inch voters toward a decision.

Opinion polls, both in Utah (such as one done by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics) and nationwide (such as a recent New York Times/Sienna College survey) show that voters believe the economy is the No. 1 issue driving their vote this year.

That could be subdivided into inflation (still running at 8.2%), rising interest rates as a method to fight this, the employment outlook, the possibility of a recession, record federal and personal debt, and President Biden’s federal student loan forgiveness program.

The answers to these questions, then, were especially important. 

Few specifics were offered regarding inflation and the national debt. Both candidates agreed the problem was one of runaway federal spending. Lee supported Republican control in the Senate as a solution, blaming President Biden and a Democratic Congress, while insisting he stood up to excesses in his own party when it was in power. McMullin blamed both parties for the problem and urged bipartisan efforts. Neither cited specific solutions, however, such as where to cut runaway spending.

On loan forgiveness, Lee called for ending federal loan programs while criticizing legislation giving the president sweeping powers. McMullin endorsed a directed approach to forgiveness for certain individuals, such as teachers, law enforcement and members of the military, and called for Congress and the president to work on specifics.

McMullin supported continuing Social Security and Medicare, blaming unnecessary wars and fiscal irresponsibility for the nation’s weakened financial situation. Lee talked about honoring promises made to senior citizens who have paid into the programs, while endorsing other investment alternatives for younger Americans who are beginning their working lives.

Differences were perhaps starkest on prescription drug prices, with McMullin supporting a plan to let the government negotiate lower prices and Lee countering that competition, through the importation of more medications from nations with sound regulatory policies, was the best way to control costs.

The candidates confronted each other on questions of foreign policy, abortion, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the shrinking Great Salt Lake and the recent Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion rights.

Other important issues — the management of public lands, education, the strategy of raising interest rates to fight inflation, to name a few — were not addressed. Such are the limitations of a single one-hour debate.

With this, the Debate Commission’s series of congressional debates for 2022 has ended. The hard work now belongs to you, the voter. 

Fortunately, the public may view these debates again and again at their leisure at the commission’s website, utahdebatecommission.org. But the research should not end there. Study the candidates’ own websites. Examine the news coverage of their speeches, statements and previous public service. 

In a democracy, the voters hold the power and call the shots. That is an enormous responsibility, and it is one that never should be taken lightly.