Both candidates for Indiana's U.S. Senate seat agree that Capitol Hill is dominated by partisan gridlock – but they differ on if and how Congress can solve the problem, even as they compete for the same undecided voters.
U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, has preached a message of centrism and bipartisanship while relentlessly painting Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock as an extreme, right-wing ideologue.
“I don't approach things as a conservative or liberal,” Donnelly said in an interview, mirroring John Gregg, the democratic candidate for governor. “I approach them as a Hoosier.”
In a debate this week, Donnelly called Mourdock an “unapologetic tea party leader,” pointing to the Republican's own statement that he sees politics as a way to “inflict my opinion on others” – a quote that Mourdock says he uses as a joke at public events.
But Mourdock sees his rigid brand of conservatism as a matter of principle, arguing that attempts at compromise have only maintained a status quo that both parties agree isn't working.
Too often, Mourdock said, bipartisanship looks like this sequence: Democrats want to spend $100 billion the country can't afford, Republicans feign outrage and the parties compromise by spending only $75 billion the country can't afford.
“It's all about the principle,” Mourdock said in an interview. “The principle that I go into this with is, government has grown too big, costs too much, and because of that, we see individual initiative being hampered.”
The Republican points to the $16 trillion national debt – made worse each year by a $1 trillion budget deficit – as an example of the problems that will require pure force of will, rather than compromise, to overcome.
But Donnelly makes the case that bipartisanship still works. He pointed to his votes for $2.4 trillion in spending cuts; a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced budget; and support for the “Bush-era” tax cuts as times he worked across party lines.
Both candidates agree on the need to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff – when the Bush tax rates expire and $100 billion in automatic annual spending cuts kick in at the end of 2012 – but Mourdock does not believe Congress will act unless Republicans control all three branches of the federal government.
Hoping to dramatically alter the country's fiscal path, Mourdock said he would push for a spending cap that would limit federal spending to a certain percentage of the country's gross domestic product, or GDP. The next step would be a tax plan that lowers rates while expanding the tax base, perhaps through a national sales tax, he said.
Donnelly's tax proposal focuses on making the research and development tax credit permanent for Indiana businesses, which he says would give job creators more certainty, and providing incentives for companies that locate in Indiana instead of overseas.
Overall, both candidates have tried to appeal to moderate voters, including Republicans who voted for Lugar in the divisive primary.
In this week's debate and a News-Sentinel interview, Mourdock softened his tone, saying he would work across party lines on the details of tax reform.
“I wouldn't have been successful in business over 30 years if I hadn't learned to work with people,” said Mourdock, a geologist by trade who worked in the energy industry before going into politics.
And Donnelly has tried to distance himself from unpopular aspects of President Obama's health care law, such as a tax on medical device makers – many of which are headquartered in Indiana.
“I've been thanked repeatedly by companies for trying to reduce the medical device tax,” said Donnelly, who voted for “Obamacare,” in the debate.
Recent polls have shown the candidates in a virtual dead heat going into the last two weeks before Election Day, making undecided voters critical for each man. Mourdock said he is pleased with internal polling, while Donnelly, in his third congressional term, believes mainstream Hoosier voters will identify with him.
“My core is that moderate-to-conservative Democratic base, and has been that way for six years,” Donnelly said. “You can get to know someone pretty well over six years.”