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Analysis: Van Drew, Alexander Excite with a Boring Debate

Tim Alexander

By Collin Hall

GALLOWAY – There was no yelling, swearing or knife-throwing at the second congressional district debate Oct. 19. 
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2nd) and former Atlantic County Detective Captain Tim Alexander argued over some of the most important issues facing Cape May County and the nation, and both candidates seemed genuinely interested in changing minds.
 Van Drew and Alexander repeated the refrain “facts matter” as they gave measured answers to delicately worded questions. The debate, the last before election day Nov. 8, was exciting because it was stately, civil and mostly free of inciting rhetoric. Given the weight of the issues and the emotions that they stir, it was commendable that both candidates gave answers aimed at all, not just those on the candidates given ‘team.’
The debate itself was almost regal in presentation. Both candidates, poised and sharp, glowed on stage under spotlights housed in Stockton’s Campus Center. The building is supported by dramatic columns that conjure images of classical Greek theaters, where debate itself was birthed.
‘Facts matter’ was the night’s mantra. Alexander introduced the phrase shortly after the debate began, and both candidates slid the phrase into their answers to show that reality is, in fact, on their side.
More surprising than the debate’s civil tone was the middle ground that candidates found on hot-button issues. If “facts matter,” then the facts led both candidates to similar conclusions on a few issues.
Both candidates agreed that renewable energy is essential to America’s future. Van Drew expressed concern about Ocean Wind, an offshore wind farm that would sit miles off the Atlantic City and Ocean City coasts; he said that the project might endanger South Jersey’s fishing industry. He expressed overall optimism for alternate energy but cautioned against going all-in too quickly. 
“We need to do it all together,” he said, warning against putting too much stock in any one energy source. 
Alexander expressed excitement about the wind farm but stressed that “we have to talk to our local communities to make it work.” 
Van Drew and Alexander also found common ground on marijuana. Alexander said that it is “absolutely necessary” to decriminalize the drug at a federal level. Van Drew, though his tone was less excited, said “in general, I’m in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.” 
Van Drew cautioned against excessive taxation on the drug, lest users return to the street market. Alexander proposed a federal marijuana tax aimed at schools to help un-burden expenses at the local level. He said that, despite additional taxes on cannabis, “people will not break the law if they have an option.” 
The two also agreed on some aspects of immigration policy. Both agreed that America needs principled legal options for long-time illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. Both emphasized that pathway for the “Dreamers,” a term that refers to those brought to the United States illegally as children.
Perhaps the most existential issue of the night was American democracy itself. Despite their agreements, the candidates’ differing views on the past election were revealing. 
Jeff Van Drew was asked why he voted not to certify the 2020 presidential election. His first words were, “I sure wish he wasn’t our president. I really do.” He said that Democrats have, in the past, voted not to certify elections but did not give any specifics. 
He did not express any regret about his vote not to certify and finished his answer by saying that Biden is the “worst president since the Civil War.” Though Van Drew said he disliked the President, he did not answer the question that was asked. His personal feelings toward Biden appeared to have a bearing on his respect for the democratic process.
Despite the formal tone of the debate and the lack of zingers, comments like this reminded the audience that a deep distrust of civic norms still bubbles across America. 
Van Drew said that, in essence, America is a shadow of its former self and that a return to “Republicanism” is needed. Alexander said that, even amidst the turmoil, “looking backward to make America great is nonsense…Our best days are tomorrow.”  
Debates like this are important. They reinforce a respect for the ‘other’ that should undergird civic life. But they will not solve deeper tensions. Nights like these, of candor and measured debate, should be the norm, not principled outliers. 
Questions? Thoughts? Email chall@cmcherald.com or call 609-886-8600 ext. 156.

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