At the outset, the 12th District congressional race down in southeast Georgia was to be a straight-up test of whether the last white Democrat from the Deep South would be able to survive another two years in Congress.
But in the last few weeks, the contest between Democratic incumbent John Barrow of Augusta and Republican challenger Lee Anderson of Grovetown, has been transformed – at least for the moment — into something slightly different.
It’s now an argument over elocution, over whether the ability to speak clearly and think on one’s feet is a worthwhile talent to take to Washington – or whether glibness and smooth-talking should be considered part of the problem.
Anderson, a farmer and state lawmaker, concedes that he’s not a Toastmasters kind of guy. Not only that, he has a rural Southern accent so pronounced that it ought to be preserved in amber for future generations to examine and enjoy.
He speaks with a King James cadence that sometimes shoves grammar into the glove compartment and leaves it there. “My gift is one-on-one. My gift is getting the job done,” Anderson said in a telephone interview. “No, I’m not the best public speaker. Always said I’m not. And I don’t want to be.
“Look at what conditions we in now, I mean. Smooth-talking people are in Congress now – and see what kind of condition we in? People are fed up. People want someone that can communicate with them, that they can relate to, that’s struggling just like they struggling. They want someone to go to Washington and go to work, and not just have a nice talk.”
Debates aren’t usually an important part of a campaign. But in the normal course of ousting an incumbent, a challenger will demand a series of them in order to put himself on an equal footing with the candidate he intends to replace. Anderson has done the opposite.
The GOP challenger says he’ll debate Barrow only after the congressman declares, on television, that he intends to vote for President Barack Obama in November. (In a July interview with Daniel Malloy, the AJC’s Washington correspondent, Barrow did just that. But Malloy didn’t have a TV camera.)
If the object is simply to tie Barrow to Obama, why not simply haul the congressman up on stage and demand he explain himself?
“When he won’t be truthful to the people, why let him get on the air and tell other scenarios and situations where he’s not being truthful?” Anderson replied.
Anderson says he has no fear of debating Barrow, but his position has drawn criticism from the home front. “Republicans for the past three years have loved beating up on President Obama for using a teleprompter during even the most mundane speeches. What are we to say about a candidate who won’t even speak?” wrote Barry Paschal, publisher of the Columbia County News-Times on Wednesday.
Shortly after his selection as the GOP nominee for vice president, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was asked how he would match up against Vice President Joe Biden in next month’s national debate between the pair.
“I’ve been in Congress 14 years and this is what we do, especially in the House. The Senate, they don’t debate as often and as frequently. That’s all we do in the House, is we debate,” Ryan said.
Barrow says Ryan is spot on, and declares that he’ll meet Anderson on any stage, any time. Just as Anderson wants to tie him to Obama, Barrow wants Anderson to answer for Republican plans – put forward by Ryan and others – to make fundamental changes to Medicare and Social Security.
“They ought to sharpen the focus on what they’re proposing and who’s going to get screwed by it, but they avoid any opportunity to explain it. Instead, they basically say ‘So’s your old man,’” Barrow declared in his own, softer Southern accent.
Barrow would surely agree that a talent for public speaking is no guarantee of intelligence – else the world would be ruled by TV news anchors. But unlike Anderson, Barrow contends that talking is an essential part of the job.
“You have to be able explain the issues to the voters, explain yourself, explain the options to the voters and why you support what you do,” he said.
More importantly, a member of Congress is the voice of his district, Barrow added. In the 12th, he becomes the buffer between the Savannah River Site, a nuclear disposal area, and the U.S. Department of Energy. He monitors cuts to Fort Gordon in Augusta and Fort Stewart on the coast proposed by the Pentagon.
“If the word comes down that they want to cut out Fort Gordon, and it all comes down to your congressman trying to talk them out of it, who do you think would do the best job of doing that?” Barrow asked. “Words matter. Ideas matter. And ideas find their expression in words.”
Anderson says his no-debate position isn’t rock-solid. “We’re still considering it. We’ll still be looking at it,” he said. In the meantime, Anderson said, he’ll be concentrating on one-on-one conversations with voters.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider