Opinion: Karen Handel's experience vs. Jon Ossoff's lack thereof

After months of TV ads, debates and speechifying, the 6th District race is almost over. (Branden Camp / Special)

Combined ShapeCaption
After months of TV ads, debates and speechifying, the 6th District race is almost over. (Branden Camp / Special)

The first debate between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel was Tuesday night, and it's pretty clear there are two reasons Ossoff didn't want to be in a debate that would have been sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and nationally televised on CNN.

The first is that he surely didn't want too many of his supporters back in California, Massachusetts and New York to see him playing budget-and-defense-hawk. But the second, and more important, is that none of his act makes up for the fact his promises to work across the aisle and be fiscally responsible look pretty gimpy next to Handel's list of things she's actually done on both counts.

After using a "make Trump furious" slogan to gain national notoriety and then quietly backing away from it -- he even said Tuesday night he'd be willing to work with President Trump on some issues -- Ossoff has recast himself as the "independent" in the race who is "willing to work with anyone." One supposes it's only a coincidence he has benefited from at least $5 million in spending by Nancy Pelosi's PAC and raised well over $1 million through the efforts of the left-wing Daily Kos.

Perhaps even in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, where Trump famously struggled to beat Hillary Clinton despite other Republicans' track record of comfortable wins there, joining "the resistance" to the president isn't really a winner.

Thus, Ossoff's talk about bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle. Which might play better if Handel didn't have an actual record of doing so.

Handel's biggest mistake Tuesday night -- and I don't mean the one most liberals are harping on, which I'll get to soon enough -- was not hitting this theme earlier or more often. As chair of the Fulton County Commission, she came into office facing a Democratic majority and a proposed budget that included tax hikes. She wound up passing a balanced budget that didn't include tax hikes anyway, by working to win over Democratic commissioners.

Ossoff? He apparently had to be goaded last month into saying he'd support a House Republican bill to block funding to the Palestinian Authority unless it stopped providing aid to terrorists. He initially said he'd introduce his own measure, but retreated after proving unable to describe how it might differ from the GOP legislation. Perhaps he means he's willing to work with almost anyone?

Likewise, Ossoff talks about what he'd do in Congress to develop industry in the district. Handel, on the other hand, first rose to prominence in the area by turning around a struggling North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. Time and again, the contrast was between what Handel has done and what Ossoff claims he'll try to do.

That point alone should score the debate as a win for Handel. If I had to guess, however, I suspect no one watching at home changed their mind about the race. Someone who already backs Ossoff won't have been surprised to hear him speak in slick generalities without really answering the question (on three -- three! -- occasions, moderators had to ask him to clarify his answer to what amounted to yes/no questions).


Now, if I had to guess which moment from the debate Democrats will try to highlight, it would be the one where Handel said this about Ossoff's support for a higher minimum wage -- which he said should be a "living wage":

"This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative. I do not support a livable wage. What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation, so that those small businesses -- that would be dramatically hurt if you imposed higher minimum wages on them -- are able to do what they do best: grow jobs, and create good-paying jobs for people in the 6th District."

The supposed gaffe here is saying she doesn't support "a livable wage" ... which in turn is portrayed as if she doesn't want people to make good money ... which would be pretty ludicrous if that were at all what she meant ... which wasn't the case, based on the rest of her answer. Her mistake was adopting Ossoff's phrasing when the subject -- and, clearly, her answer -- was about the minimum wage. And she's correct that conservatives believe the answer isn't to raise a government-imposed pay rate on businesses, but to get out of the economic stagnation of the past eight years that has caused more people to depend on the minimum wage. That pay rate was never intended to apply to household breadwinners -- and it wouldn't today, if economic growth hadn't been so anemic for so long.

In any case, Ossoff was much more wrong on the substance of this issue to invoke "someone working a 40-hour work week." The statistics show that applies to just 1 in 4 of those earning the minimum wage. Less than 1 percent of all hourly workers a) earn the minimum wage and b) work at least 40 hours a week. They number about half a million out of nearly 80 million hourly employees (see Table 9 here ). Ossoff's phrasing sounds more sympathetic, but it's classic left-wing sleight-of-hand about the issue.