In the first of four scheduled public debates, U.S. Congressman Jim Himes (D-4th) squared off against challenger Steve Obsitnik (R) at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich during the World Affairs Forum on Wednesday night.
The primary topics centered on foreign policy, as the World Affairs Forum is a "non-profit, non-partisan community organization dedicated to expanding understanding of global affairs and America's role in the world," according to the organization's literature.
"We host one of these events every two years, generally sticking to the 4th Congressional District, and we ask the candidates to focus on foreign policy," said World Affairs representative Michele Kamenetzky. "Our hope is it gives the candidates something to focus on they don't usually get to talk about—and show off expertise they're not usually asked about—while at the same time raising awareness."
Questions were submitted by the organization and audience members, which were vetted to ensure sure they were relevant to the general theme of the evening. Topics ranged from the United States' economic versus military relationship with China to appropriate withdrawal timelines for Afghanistan to the potential fall of the Euro.
On some topics, the candidates were able to agree. The United States' relationship with China, for example, provides the incentive of economic growth and prosperity, but the potential for militaristic violence and political oppression the United States could never endorse.
"China provides us with a spectacular opportunity to trade with them, to get rich, as they buy our products," said Himes. "Unfortunately, we will never agree with the way Chinese leadership feels about how to run a political system. They jail dissidents. They don't allow for the kind of debate we are having. They don't allow all of you to vote for who their representatives would be. They are committing crimes in Tibet that would turn your stomach... it's a 'Frenemy.'"
Obsitnik agreed on the idea behind Himes' statement, but not his choice of words. Obsitnik felt as the U.S. continued to evolve and innovate as a nation, it would need to keep an eye on China. Obsitnik went so far as to say a submarine battle in the South China Sea is a serious concern for the country.
"China is our greatest national threat and our greatest opportunity," he said. "China, we have to look at them commercially—and their billion-plus people we want to sell stuff to. We've got to tightwalk our trade with them and use the [World Trade Organization] as an instrument towards that. And then finally, we need to be very careful militarily about our steps over there and we've seen a lot the U.S. Navy actually redeploy many of our assets in the Pacific to that region alone."
However, as the length of the evening eroded pleasantries, several topics came up where the candidates started butting heads. Afghanistan was one of these issues, with Obsitnik and Himes each firing at statements from the other on what should be the appropriate approach to drawing down troops in the region.
"Jim Himes said he disagreed with the president here and I just haven't seen the fortitude behind it," Obsitnik said. "We have asked the president what the mission is in Afghanistan. If there is no mission, we get out tomorrow. If there is a mission, explain it. In January of 2010, Congressman Himes went to Afghanistan, spent a lot of time there. Thoughtful visit. He, in his own words said, 'Don't know the mission, don't know who the enemy is, don't know what success is.' Then, in April 29, 2011, he finally said, rightfully so, 'I'm done. I'm done...' Then when the vote came up to withdrawal, he didn't vote to withdraw. If you don't know who the enemy is and you don't know what success is, why don't you stand up to your president?"
Himes fired back that Obsitnik's own answer and lack of a declarative stance was ambiguous, as was Obsitnik's claim that he should "show some fortitude," which Himes said didn't actually mean anything.
"What I can tell you, very concretely, is that I have cast probably 30 votes on the floor of the House of Representatives based on one principal, which is that I disagree with this President's nation-building strategy, and I've been very clear about that from the start, and I think instead of fighting a counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan, which involves nation building, it involves a mathematically determined... number of troops on the ground. I don't, and have never, agreed with that counter-insurgency mission and I've always urged, as Vice President Joe Biden did, a counter-terrorism mission. That means you go after the terrorists."
Afterwards, both said while they might disagree on certain points, the conversation was open and engaging, and each looked forward to further debates.
"It was a great dialogue of ideas and they gave us the time to talk about some key issues on where we agree and where we differ," Obsitnik said following the debate. "I think we need more civility in government and I think we had our moments back-and-forth, but we have three more—I'm sure we'll get more into it at the second debate."
Himes agreed that civility is integral to the democratic process, but took the opportunity to call out Obsitnik on what he believed to be areas Obsitnik was lacking in during the debate.
"I was very happy. I felt I was specific and I think he was vague. Look, he's a nice guy, but his answers were vague, things like 'work with our allies,' where as I tried to be as specific as possible," Himes said. "I think that's what the room felt today. We should have an aggressive clash of ideas, but we should always stay civil. There's no excuse for anybody in either party for getting personal."
The next three debates will take place at the following times and locations:
- Oct. 18, noon, Norwalk Inn, 99 East Ave., Norwalk.
- Oct. 28, 4 p.m., Wilton High School, 395 Danbury Road, Wilton.
- Nov. 2, 10 a.m., Bridgeport Holiday Inn, 1070 Main St., Bridgeport.