Aiken, Ellmers draw on current events, stale one-liners during debate

Republican 2nd District Congresswoman Renee Ellmers and Democrat Clay Aiken used the debate over ISIS, the Affordable Care Act and budget battles to draw differences between themselves in a debate marked by one-liners and dog-whistles to the political faithful.

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Mark Binker
PINEHURST, N.C. — Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers and Clay Aiken, her Democratic challenger for North Carolina's 2nd District seat, were certainly feisty in their first and only debate Monday, riffing off both current events as well as well-honed one-liners from early in President Barack Obama's presidency.

Ellmers is a two-term incumbent and former nurse. Aiken is a first-time candidate best known for his run on "American Idol."

For those watching the exchanges who might need some more background or a quick fact check, here are notes on some of the more contentious, strange and strained exchanges.

Boots on the ground

Moderator and WRAL News anchor David Crabtree opened the debate by asking Ellmers and Aiken if they backed Obama's current strategy of air strikes on the Islamic State – the extremist group known as ISIS that is taking over territory in Syria and Iraq – and if they would vote to send ground troops.

The question drew out one of the clearest policy differences between the two candidates.

"I do believe we need to continue those folks on the ground right now, the Iraqi army, the rebels in Syria, in pushing back against ISIS," Aiken said. "ISIS is a threat, (but) it's not currently a threat to U.S. soil, but we don't want it to become a threat … I don't believe the U.S. should be policing the entire world."

He emphasized he has not yet seen evidence that would convince him to back sending ground troops.

Ellmers, by contrast, said she would vote to send troops into Iraq and Syria if called upon to vote on such a measure.

"This is something that President Obama has known about for quite some time. His military advisers have been advising him for quite some time on the threat of (ISIS). Remember back in 2012, President Obama said we were victorious in Iraq – and that's where this started. So, the emergence of this very brutal group has come up as a result of that. Yes, the United States needs to be there," Ellmers said, pointing to a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to fund aid for Syrian rebel groups who are opposed both to ISIS and the current regime.

"For the longest time, President Obama has been speaking to the world – he went out on an apology tour when he was first elected – and he basically said to our enemies, 'We're no threat to you,' and to our allies, 'You can't trust us.' We've got to rebuild that trust."

Soon after he was sworn in as president in 2009, Obama did go on trips abroad making stops in, among other places, Turkey and Egypt. The theme of those speeches were generally bridging divisions between nations and rebuilding relationships with people and countries that viewed the United States with suspicion. During an April 2009 speech before the Turkish parliament, for example, Obama said, "The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam." Republicans labeled this an "apology tour," saying that it projected weakness into the world.
For what it's worth, Politifact and other fact-checking organizations gave 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney "Pants on Fire" ratings when they looked at the "apology tour" claim. However, the term has remained popular in GOP circles and will be widely understood by GOP partisans. 

ISIS in the U.S.

In a follow-up to her answers, Ellmers suggested that the ISIS ideology had already spread to the United States. 

"As far as policing the world or the threat to the United States, we've already had a situation pop up in Oklahoma where a gentleman who identifies with the Muslim League has done a very heinous crime," she said. "If beheadings of Americans is not a call to action, I'm not sure what will be for you (Aiken)."

Ellmers was referring to the case of Alton Alexander Nolen, 30, who is charged with beheading a coworker. Nolen reportedly converted to Islam in prison. According to a police statement, after interviewing Nolen’s former co-workers, 'information was obtained that he recently started trying to convert several employees to the Muslim religion,'" reported The Washington Post.

However, foreign policy experts say it's doubtful that he was acting at the behest of anyone within the ISIS hierarchy. Rather, it's more likely he was a disturbed "lone wolf" copying acts he had seen elsewhere.

"That guy didn't act out on any political motivation," David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, said during an interview for a story on foreign policy in the U.S. Senate campaign. "He copied a tactic that's been used elsewhere to act out his rage." 

Immigration, bipartisanship and who's the boss? 

One of the testiest turns between Ellmers and Aiken came when Crabtree asked the candidates about immigration and securing the border with Mexico. 

"We have continuously voted for legislation to secure that border. There are laws in place now that could secure our border. We have the technology," Ellmers said. "You mentioned the areas that you wouldn't really be able to have a physical presence, we have the technology ... We are highly technically capable of making sure this border can be taken care of. It's just a question of 'Will the president act?'"

Aiken said that House Republicans had failed to act to curb the border crisis.

"This absolute do-nothing Congress that we see right now has had multiple opportunities," Aiken said. "The congresswoman has talked about bills that have been passed in the House, but she neglected to talk about the immigration reform bill that was passed in the Senate with broad bipartisan support that has not been taken up in the House."

That prompted Ellmers to retort that Aiken seemed confused on what office he was running for.

"You seem to be concerned, or a little confused, as to whether or not you would be doing your job in the Senate or in the House of Representatives," she said. "You would be in the House of Representatives if you were elected, and Nancy Pelosi would be the one that you would vote for for speaker – who would your boss while in Washington."

Pelosi is the current House minority leader and former House speaker from California. 

As Aiken acknowledged, Republicans have offered their own immigration bill but have, so far, refused to take up the Senate measure. The two chambers have been at loggerheads.

So, although Ellmers might have scored a rhetorical point by calling Aiken "confused," he was substantively on point. 

Aiken didn't seem shaken by Ellmers' civics lesson, but he took umbrage at the suggestion that he would follow a "boss" if elected. 

"Nancy Pelosi would not be my boss, unlike John Boehner would be your boss. I have never said who I would vote for for speaker," Aiken said. "Whoever the speaker is would never be my boss, and it's a shame that you still believe that John Boehner is your boss."

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, is the current House speaker.

Aiken was actually referencing a knock leveled at Ellmers by conservatives during primaries, citing prior occasions when she reportedly said the Boehner was her "boss."

In reality, both Aiken and Ellmers riffed on a theme of connecting their opponents to unpopular party leaders. Aiken's effort to link Ellmers to Boehner played to informed Democrats and independent voters who wouldn't like the idea of the Republican incumbent towing the party line.

Meanwhile, Ellmers did her best throughout the debate to connect Aiken to Obama, who opinion polls show is unpopular in the 2nd District.

"This Obama-Aiken economy is just killing us," Ellmers said at one point. 

Repeal or reform Obamacare? 

Another snappy exchange came over the Affordable Care Act, what some people call "Obamacare," and Republican efforts to do away with the law. 

Ellmers called the law a "total deception," a reference to statements by Obama and other Democrats that the ACA would let people keep their existing insurance plans and doctors. Those promises turned out to not be correct.

Aiken shot back that, rather than try to fix the laws, Republicans decided to be unproductive and attempt repeals.

"Fifty-five times you could have fixed that problem, and you didn't fix it, because you took a vote, which you just sat here and said a minute ago, won't pass," Aiken said. "You're wasting taxpayer money and you're wasting taxpayer time by not sitting down and doing things the Senate has already said they're willing to do … That frustrates me."

Ellmers responded to what she called Aiken's "theatrics," by saying the House had not just been voting on repeals.

"It is not Republicans who continuously talk about those votes being repeals, it is Democrats. It is (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid, it is Barack Obama, which you support. You support Obamacare," Ellmers replied. "We have continuously voted to reform it ... It is not Republicans that have called these 55 votes repeals. It's Democrats."

In March, The Washington Post put out a handy list of the then-54 votes on the ACA in the House since the health care bill became law. Many of those measures would have had the effect of taking funding away from the law or otherwise blocking its implementation.

Repealing the law has been a key piece of many GOP campaign pledges.

As for how the votes have been characterized, Ellmers herself wrote a letter to Reid in June 2012 saying "This week, the House will again vote to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." And she said in 2013 that she would "work tirelessly to repeal and replace this terrible law".

440th Air Wing

During an exchange over military spending, Aiken and Ellmers had an exchange that might be difficult to follow for those not living in the Fort Bragg area. 

The clash came over the 440th Airlift Wing, a unit of cargo planes that military leaders had slated to close. Post officials and community leaders have urged lawmakers to act to save the wing.

Aiken accused Ellmers of acting too late to put forward an amendment that would have saved the wing.

"Actually, Mr. Aiken is incorrect in that. I'm not sure where you get your very high-quality information, but that is not the way it played out. In fact, we were aware of the situation from the beginning," Ellmers said.

Aiken appears to be referencing a Fayetteville Observer story that detailed congressional efforts to save the 440th.

"Ellmers introduced her amendment earlier this week," the paper reported. "It was a bipartisan move co-sponsored by Democrats David Price and Mike McIntyre and Republican Richard Hudson. But the amendment was submitted late, according to the House Armed Services Committee."

Others stories said that Ellmers' amendment "beat a deadline" to make it into a defense authorization bill. Either way, it does not appear the language with regard to the 440th made it in the version of that bill passed by the House.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan has put forward a similar amendment to the Senate version of the measure, but it's unclear when the bill will come to a floor vote.


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