Opinion: Christine O'Donnell - Chris Coons debate: Topic-by-topic recap


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Chris Coons opening statement

Wolf Blitzer of CNN and co-moderator Nancy Karibjanian, anchor of WHYY-TV’s nightly news and information program, welcome the candidates to the University of Delaware. The first hour will be a Q & A. The second part will involve questions from students. Blitzer asks for no applause during the debate. A coin toss determined the order of evening.


Two-minute opening statements will be made in the much-anticipated first and only debate to fill Vice President Joe Biden’s longtime Senate seat.

‘There is a great deal at stake in this election,’ says Coons, reading from a written statement. He decries the partisan gridlock in Washington. Christine O'Donnell wants to go backward, he says, and has ‘extreme positions.’

Coons says he knows how to work with colleagues to spur job growth.

‘I take seriously the idea that this campaign is a job interview,’ said Coons, and the debate is the best way for voters to take his measure.

Chris Coons on jobs

Co-moderator Nancy Karibjanian asks about unemployment and says most Americans say the economy is still in a recession, so why should the voters of Delaware trust a Democrat.

Coons: ‘Because of my combination of experience, working in the....

...private sector and the public sector.’ Coons has worked with the Chamber of Commerce and ‘lots of groups that represent businesses large and small.’ He wants a research-and-development tax credit and a new manufacturing tax credit. Coons wants to change the ‘crazy tax policy of Washington’ that encourages moving jobs overseas. ‘Doing more in investment and innovation.’ The way out of the recession is ‘growth.’

Christine O'Donnell’s opening statement

Christine O’Donnell, in her opening statement, said she is worried about the national debt and that Chris Coons supports increasing governent pending.

She said that a vote for Coons would cost each Delaware resident $10,000 through taxes and other costs.

“Uncle Sam needs to be cut off,” she said.

O'Donnell also said that job creation is a prime interest. She pledged to strengthen and improve education and to protect constitutional liberties. She added that if voters think government is too small, then Coons is “your guy.”

Culture of dependency

Christine O'Donnell talks about her plan to increase jobs. We need, she said, ‘to get out of the way of the small business owners and small entrepreneurs. ... Roll back the regulations that have forced them to close their doors. She says permanently eliminating the ‘death tax’ will create 5 million new jobs.

O'Donnell challenges that ‘we are not creating a culture of dependency. ... What do we want Delwareans to be receiving, food stamps or paychecks?’

Coons: ‘To simply denounce people as being dependent because they are applying for food stamps ... is plainly slandering people because of difficult times.’

O'Donnell charges Coons of wanting to stop tax cuts for ‘the so-called rich.’ But those people are small-business owners, she said.

Coons interrupts: ‘We are going to have a conversation rather than a diatribe.’

Government spending

The candidates were asked how to cut the budget -– and told to mention fraud, waste and abuse.

Christine O’Donnell said she would cancel unspent money in the economic stimulus bill. She would also recommend a freeze on hiring non-security personnel.

O’Donnell then brought up the subjects that Wolf Blitzer suggested the candiates leave alone –- fraud, waste and abuse. She said the government needed to crack down on all three.

O'Donnell personal finance problems

Co-moderator Nancy Karibjanian asks Christine O'Donnell about her well-chronicled financial problems with her income taxes and mortgage. How can voters rely on you to managed the deficit? she is asked.

O’ Donnell responded: ‘The IRS admitted that was a computer problem. Thousands of Delawareans have experiened the same thing -- an IRS mistake, which is why we need to reform the IRS. ... I don’t have a trust fund. I don’t come from a privileged background like my opponent. I know how hard it is to earn and keep a dollar.’

Voters, she added, should trust her because she has worked for nonprofits and made sacrifices needed to pay off her personal debt. She sold her house and possessions to get out of debt. ‘I have worked hard to get where I am. ... I am stronger now. I made it through to the other side. Leadership is not about whether you fall, it’s about whether you get up. And I have.’

Saturday Night Live

Chris Coons alluded to some of Christine O’Donnell’s controversial statements -– comments on masturbation, sex education and witchcraft that have prompted commentaries and parodies.

Without describing these issues in detail, he said that they have been distracting voters from more pressing and important topics in the campaign. Coons said he wanted to focus on hard issues.

This prompted a mention of a much-viewed parody of O'Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” campaign ad. The parody appeared on ‘Saturday Night Live.’

Coons jokingly suggested that perhaps he would end up on ‘SNL’ as well. “I’m dying to see who’s going to play me,” he said.


Moderator Wolf Blitzer to Coons: Would you support a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan that includes Taliban representation?

Coons said he thinks the war in Afghanistan was justified because the Taliban helped Al Qaeda. ‘I would support a negotiated resolution to the war that allows us to leave some assets,’ he said. ‘We’ve spent $1.3 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. ... We have asked a lot of our men and women in the field, but frankly, the mission has exceeded the scope that we could reasonably expect.’

He is concerned about threats from Iraq and Pakistan. But he does not answer the question.

O'Donnell asks why Coons supports a ‘random troop withdrawal’ that will ‘embolden the terrorists even more.’ She says benchmarks must be met before the United States can withdraw.

She doesn’t answer the question either.

‘I am not a witch’

Co-moderator Nancy Karibjanian mentions the satiric portrayals of Christine O'Donnell in the media and on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Some people, she said, think they are ‘distractions, but that’s the message voters are receiving. The comments in your own past have become fodder for late-night TV shows.’

She mentions the famous ‘I am not a witch’ ad, and adds that some have written that such a thing ‘makes Delawareans cringe.’

O'Donnell: ‘This election cycle should not be about comments I made on a comedy show over a decade and a half ago.’ The election, she said, should be about jobs and Social Security and other things that voters are concerned about.

‘My priority is ... to counter these things. My opponent said statements we made in our 20s should be off the table. Days later he started running ads. He’s going back on his work, using those statements to misrepresent my character.

‘While I made statements, my faith has matured over the years. Regardless of my faith, when I go down to Washington, D.C., it is the Constitution that I will defend.’

When asked if she believes whether evolution is a myth, as she told Bill Maher, she said: ‘What I believe is irrelevant.’ She said that government overreaches by telling schools they cannot teach creationism.


After a fight over whether Coons is a Marxist, the moderators move the discussion along.

A question is made about education and public schools, and accountability in the classroom.

Coons lauds Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ program for schools, in which there is money for schools willing to make significant changes. He compliments the Delaware teachers union -- which has embraced charters and allows teacher compensation to be tied to student success.

He said his mother and grandmother were teachers, and that he ‘deeply respects’ the work that they do. He was at a school earlier because ‘today is National School Lunch Day.’

Teachers are critical, he said, and they are entitled to a good standard of living, wtih healthcare, a pension and jobs security. But there are issues that need to be tackled, he added.

He didn’t answer the question, O'Donnell pointed out, ‘probably because he got their endorsement.’

Constitutional issues

Chris Coons said that he was surprised to see Christine O’Donnell quoted recently as saying that the Constitution, not her religious beliefs, would guide her votes in Washington. He questioned whether that was a true statement -– and wondered about past controversial statements.

“These aren’t just random statements on some late-night TV show,” he said.

O’Donnell has said she supports the Constitution. This led Coons to ask which Constitution? Is it the Constitution of the 1920s and 1930s? The 1970s? He alluded to the 1970s ruling by the Supreme Court that legalized abortion. Does O’Donnell follow and respect such rulings? he asked. O'Donnell has opposed abortion, except in cases in which the mother’s life is threatened.

O'Donnell will talk to teachers, not unions

O'Donnell on education: ‘We have a broken system, an extremely high dropout rate. Throwing more money at it is not gonna work. We need to sit down and have discussions with the teachers, not the unions.’

Moderator Wolf Blitzer: Do you support killing the Department of Education?

No, said O'Donnell. ‘We don’t need to go that far, but we need to make sure the money we are putting into education goes to classrooms. ... Every time there is a problem, we throw more money at it to appease the special-interest groups.’

She reiterates that ‘we need to empower teachers’ but, she adds, ‘we need to empower the parents.’ She supports charter schools and student vouchers, which, she said, ‘give parents, regardless of income or status, the chance for students to have a shot at a good education.’


It was noted that under the new healthcare law, children can now stay on their parents’ health insurance policies and that insurance companies cannot end coverage.

Christine O’Donnell was asked it it’s true that she wants to repeal those provisions in the sweeping healthcare bill passed this year.

Republican O’Donnell answered by denouncing the high cost of medical care. She suggested that medical malpractice costs drive up overall health costs and suggested other savings. O’Donnell eventually said that she would work to overturn most of the provisions of the healthcare law.

She also alleged that the new legislation has driven up costs.

Democrat Chris Coons said that rather than repeal the law, it should be implemented in a responsible manner. He also challenged his opponent to show how the bill has raised costs.

Healthcare reform: For or against?

Democrat Chris Coons supports the Obama healthcare reform bill. Yes, he said, ‘It’s not perfect, there’s problems with it, but rather than turning it back and going through another year of two of partisan bickering ... I would stand for it and implement it.’

What about malpractice liability limits and the fact that Democrats are close to trial lawyers, who are often big donors. Would you support malpractice reform? Coons is asked.

No, he said, because people have the right to seek redress, whether it’s financial or ‘a medical procedure that went horribly wrong. I don’t support caps on medical liability. ... I frankly think that’s an important part of the American legal system.’

Republican Christine O'Donnell responds: ‘This healthcare bill has caused costs to skyrocket. You say it’s partisan bickering, but one out of four Democrats have gone on record saying they oppose this bill. ... Uncle Sam has no business coming in the examination room, coming between you and your doctor.’

Coons bridles: ‘That’s a great slogan, you toss it around wherever you go.’

O'Donnell replies that the healthcare bill ‘gives the government the ability to say what kind of treament a doctor can and can’t do, what kind it will fund. ... This healthcare bill has cut Medicare.’


Democrat Chris Coons said he supports a path to legalization for illegal immigrants.

He started by noting that immigration is a federal responsibility and that the government has often let down states, including Arizona and Delaware. He said whole industries depend on illegal workers and that if workers have not committed crimes, there should be a process for them to eventually become legal residents.

Coons said the first step is to strengthen the border, to make it harder to enter the country illegally and to crack down on employers who hire such workers. He said a better ID system was needed to ferret out illegal workers. Undocumented workers who have not committed any crimes would have to learn English, pay a fine and go through a formal process to obtain citizenship.

He did not recommend blanket amnesty for illegal workers.

Is Chris Coons a socialist?

Democrat Chris Coons was asked about an essay, from his youth, in which he touted socialism and even described himself as a socialist.

Critics, including Republican Christine O’Donnell, have suggested it shows his views on government. She made the charge in the debate.

Coons said the allegation was not true.

The essay, he said, was a joke -– written when he was graduating from college. Anyone reading the essay would see it was a joke, he said.

Coons, who is balding, got one of the bigger laughs of the evening when he alluded to his head, saying, “I have always been a clean-shaven capitalist.”

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and abortion

The first student questions regarded whether the candidates would support the repeal of the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and about abortion.

Chris Coons on the military policy: Yes. ‘I would move swiftly as a senator to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ It’s discimination, pure and simple. In my view, we should be making progress in this country ... recognizing the full range of human experience.’ The repeal, he said, would be ‘an important next step in the American civil rights movement.’

Christine O'Donnell on the military policy: No. ‘It’s up to the military to set the policy that the military believes is best for unit cohesiveness and military readiness.’ The military, she said, ‘already regulates behavior.It doesn’t allow affairs if you’re married ... I don’t think that Congress should be enforcing a social agenda onto our military.’

On abortion rights, O'Donnell is against and Coons is for, with a nuance.

‘I am personally opposed to abortion,’ he said, ‘but it is not my place to put that restriction on women. I think abortion should be safe, legal and rare.’

Stem-cell research

In response to a question from a University of Delaware student, Chris Coons in his first debate with Christine O’Donnell said that he supported federal funding for stem cell research.

When pressed by a moderator on whether he meant embryonic stem cell research, he nodded and said, “Embryonic stem cell research.”

O’Donnell, who has often spoken about her Christian beliefs and opposes abortion, took another view.

She suggested that work on embryonic stem cells was not necessary. She said that studies show that there have been great strides in adult stem cell research. These cells, she said, could be used for medical advances.

As far as the federal government endorsing the use of embryonic cells, “the government should not create life merely to destroy it.”

Coons and O'Donnell hope to capture the Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden.

Campaign finance reform

Chris Coons decried the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that has allowed huge amounts of money to be infused into the electoral system without the donors having to be identified.

O'Donnell says her contributors are harassed when they are identified, and that the Citizens United decision applies to both parties equally.

When pressed by moderator Wolf Blitzer about whether Americans ‘have the right to know where money is coming from?’ O'Donnell replies, ‘Yes and no.’ She said candidates could disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission, but ‘they don’t have to put it on a website, that makes anyone vulnerable to further fundraising calls.’

Coons opposed the Citizens United decision. ‘The best way to ensure clean and open campaigns is to disclose donors. It’s an important way to hold candidates and elected officials accountable.’

Islam in America

A Muslim student at the University of Delaware asked about the role of Islam in American life and the plan to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 terrorists attacks.

Both candidates seeking the seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden sidestepped the issue somewhat.

Christine O’Donnell said the issue should be decided on a local level. She did not direclty oppose the project.

She did suggest, however, that local lawmakers might find that “their reelection will be jeopardized” if they support the project.

Chris Coons said he too would defer to local land-use authorites on the issue. He said it wasn’t a “wise decision” to plan a mosque at the site, but did not say he would oppose it. He noted other mosques already exist in Manhattan. He also denounced the Florida pastor who recently threatened to burn Korans on the anniversary of Sept. 11.

Supreme Court decisions you don’t like

Christine O'Donnell is apologetic when asked if there are any recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions with which she disagrees.

She says she was unable to think of one and said: ‘I’ll put it up on my website, I promise you.’

Blitzer tries to help: ‘You disagree with Roe v. Wade.’

That’s not a recent decision, O'Donnell points out. Also, she adds, overturning Roe ‘would not make abortion illegal, it would put the power back to the states.’

She added that she disagreed with some recent decisions about ‘pornography, to federal court decisions to give terrorists Miranda rights.’ She also said she takes issue with a U.S. District Court decision overturning the federal government’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ military policy.

Coons said that the Citizens United case, which they had discussed just moments earlier, was one he disagreed with. The campaign finance decision, he said, ‘takes a logical extension in the law to a ridiculous extreme.’ In terms of political contributions, the free speech rights of corprations don’t equal the free speech rights of ‘living breathing citizens.’

Puzzling answers

The debate has been cordial and civil.

Frequently in the debate, Chris Coons seems puzzled by Christine O'Donnell’s responses. ‘There so much there,’ he says, when offered the chance to rebut O'Donnell.

At one point, he even asked the moderators to let her continue past her time, because her answer to that point did not make sense to him. They agreed.


What specifically would you do to end the bitter partisanship in Washington? That question was posed to the candiates.

Christine O’Donnell began by noting: “I’ve had to fight my party to be here on this stage.”

Last month she stunned the Republican establishment in Delaware and nationwide by winning the GOP primary.

O'Donnell said she would reach across the aisle to work with Democrats if elected. She said she would try to convince Senate colleagues who have “lost their way” and fallen into bipartisanship.

Democrat Chris Coons dismissed those comments. He said that, as county executive in New Castle County, he has a long track record of working with members of both parties.

He was asked why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once refer to him as his “pet.”

“I’m nobody’s pet,” he said. “I’m going to be a bulldog for Delaware.”

O'Donnell then said that she would support some parts of the Obama administration’s national security agenda.

Tea Party

Moderator Wolf Blitzer returns to Christine O'Donnell’s witch ad. What were you thinking?

‘To put it to rest,’ she replied, ‘to put it behind me.’

In her closing statement, O'Donnell was harsh on opponent Chris Coons, who she said ‘has a record of raising taxes and spending.’ She said he is in ‘lockstep with Barack Obama and Harry Reid. And that’s why Harry Reid has called him his pet.’

Sounding the call of the ‘tea party’ movement, of which she is one of the highest-profile candidates, she added that what Washington, D.C., needs now ‘are new voices, and we need to look to the people and not to the government.

‘My opponent is addicted to a culture of spending waste fraud and abuse. ... I want to go to Washington and be the voice of the people of Delaware, not any special-interest group. I do believe that America is the greatest force of good in the world and I have never questioned whether America is a beacon of freedom and justice.’

One thing we all learned tonight: Someone who lives in Delaware is a ‘Delawarean.’


Chris Coons, in his closing remarks, said Christine O’Donnell was good at running for office, but not at running any thing. He then went on to tout his own record as a county executive.

What Delaware needed, he said, was a senator with “real hands-on experience.” He can offer the state such experience, he said.

He also said that, unlike his opponent, Christine O’Donnell, he has lengthy experience in the private and public sector.

The candidates, who never flagged in energy during the 90-minute contest, looked like they could have continued debating the issues before the audience at the University of Delaware. The moderators, however, announced the evening was over.

They will debate again next week.

[For the Record, added at 6:27 p.m.: We originally wrote that the California Supreme Court overturned the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips made that decision.]

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