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The Empire

Turner and Weprin debate in NY-9, casting each other in 2D

Weprin, left, and Turner, right, with the debate organizers Monday. (Colby Hamilton / WNYC)

But do their claims hold water?

Over the course of the rowdy hour-and-a-half long debate in Queens on Monday, Republican Bob Turner and Democrat David Weprin were asked what scared them most about their opponents.

Weprin began, “I’m very scared of his Tea Party philosophy and his…” The chorus of boos forced him to stop. He continued, “I’m sorry you’re having trouble with the truth. ‘Cut, cut, cut—cut the budget 35 percent and not consider any taxes’…” He was interrupted again by someone shouting, “Stop the spending” to a round of cheers. “And I’m scared of those extreme views even by some of his supporters in the audience.”

“Mr. Weprin is tainted by a long career in politics,” Turner said when he took the mike, silence punctuating his pause between sentences. “He’s part of the system. And that’s why he has got to go.”

With just a few weeks before the election to decide who will succeed Anthony Weiner as the congressman from the 9th Congressional District, the candidates have been going head-to-head in debates this week. A televised debate was taped yesterday, and another live debate was scheduled in the district last night.

Even before the debate, both sides have painted each other as caricatures. One the Obama-loving corrupt career politician who leaves a trail of questionable ethics behind him as he clambers for higher office. The other an obstructionist, dangerous Tea Partier bent on destroying the social safety net that so many in the district count on. In truth, they’re not so much running against each other as test driving the 2012 arguments their respective parties hope will carry them to the White House and into control of Congress.

While the arguments might be nationally focused, Turner and Weprin are pitching themselves to the hometown crowd. Weprin has it a bit easier. Even though the seat is technically open, he has voter enrollment, party infrastructure, labor support and a financial edge on his side. That puts him as close to an incumbent’s advantage as possible. He sticks to classic liberal Democratic talking points, pronounces his support for Israel, and, while not particularly exciting, he promises to be something Democratic voters in the district are comfortable with.

Additionally, either because his party is in the minority in Congress or because he’s just a politician, Weprin is light on the legislative details. The Democrats don’t have a chance of getting anything passed in the House. He’s also been around this track enough times to know issue specificity does not get you elected. Weprin talks about jobs, and saving entitlements, and the need for infrastructure. But at the end of the day he is a Democratic foot soldier. His agenda will be his House leadership’s agenda. The patron saint of this seat, Queens Democratic Party boss Congressman Joe Crowley, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Turner on the other hand has made some concrete statements. We dealt with the new Park51 non-issue earlier. His statements about Federal spending and entitlements, on the other hand, provide jerky-like food for thought. Here’s Turner, in his own words, on this issue:

I have proposed we cut Federal spending 35 percent. It’s going to take us, probably, seven to ten years to achieve this… In these cuts we have to prioritize and I’ve mentioned the social programs, the most important programs that have to be preserved. Beyond that we are going to have to get out of some businesses: the department of agriculture, how we handle the department of education...We have EPA that is staggering in its complications to business. Every one of these is going to have to be cut.

But here’s the problem. Of the $3.6 trillion Federal budget, approximately 66 percent is entitlements, defense spending and debt payments (Turner supported the debt ceiling vote). That means the rest of the Federal government—yes, the departments of agriculture and education, as well as the weather service and the FBI—is inside that last third.

In short, unless you’re talking about seriously gutting Federal agencies and/or defense spending, cutting 35 percent of the Federal government means cutting at some level “the most important programs that have to be preserved.”

“It's certainly possible to cut a third,” said Jason Peuquet, a policy analyst with the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “But that obviously comes at some pretty significant costs."

Likewise, he pointed out, it is entitlements that are causing concern for future budgets. “They're projected to grow faster than the overall economy. They'll eventually get to the level that they're going to push out everything else in the budget," Peuquet said. “Protecting them really isn't the solution unfortunately."