[Update to the article identified below by using a combination of brackets and italics.]
You know a phone interview doesn’t end well when a candidate for U.S. Congress hangs up and has staffers chalk it up to bad cell reception. Unfortunately, this summed up my twenty-minute phone interview with Rob Zerban, Paul Ryan’s local challenger for Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. His excuse might have been believable if Zerban hadn’t said, "I'm done" just prior to losing reception. Could I have misheard him? Unlikely. Zerban agreed to let me record the interview and the digital copy didn't make a mistake.
It's common to start interviews with open-ended questions sometimes called softballs. It allows candidates to control their talking points while giving them the flexibility to tee off on their opponents. But when the questions become more challenging, candidates must be able to think on their feet.
I started with basic questions like: what is your plan to reduce our country’s longstanding debt? Can we keep social security solvent without privatizing it? Will Obamacare’s health insurance exchange drive premiums up or down? Should healthcare expertise be a job requirement for Obamacare’s fifteen-member advisory board?
Zerban handled these questions rather well and didn't shy from criticizing Ryan. For instance, on the debt question, he blasted Ryan for being a “fiscal phony” and said that economists don’t see Ryan’s budget as a serious plan. He used Paul Krugman, a 2008 Nobel prize winner in economics, as someone who had sharply disputed Ryan’s proposals. Zerban asked rhetorically, do we trust a Nobel prize winner or Paul Ryan who has a bachelor's degree in economics?
Zerban was doing well, but he appeared to struggle with the question of whether healthcare coverage was a human right. The premise is often used by liberals (progressives if you desire) to argue for universal healthcare.
“Absolutely, I mean there is no doubt about this,” Zerban said firmly. “It’s written in our [U.S.] Constitution, health, happiness, and the pursuit of,” Zerban abruptly stopped after muddling the phrase. He rebounded quickly saying, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The phrase may have been right, but it’s not in the U.S. Constitution. It’s a part of the Declaration of Independence, a founding document that preceded the U.S. Constitution. It's a pretty common mistake, but if Ryan had made that mistake, would it have been forgiven?
“My position has always ‘Medicare for all,’ we need to be able to -- and I hope you don’t try to paint me as a screaming liberal by saying that -- look, I embrace ‘Medicare for All’ for business reasons, because it’s practical, because it makes sense.”
Medicare for All was a Democratic bill that proposed a single payer, government controlled healthcare system. It sought to replace private insurance companies with a new nationalized system for all basic and major care. The bill suffered an untimely death in the House of Representatives when a majority of Democrats preferred a more conservative bill called Obamacare. Although Zerban supports the notion of a universal healthcare, he said he would be content with Obamacare as to avoid costly litigation battles down the road.
I asked, “If it [health care coverage] is a human right, should they [Independent Advisory Board] be trying to save costs by reducing coverage in certain areas?” I pushed further, “If it’s a human right, should they be trying to reduce coverage?” Zerban's response seemed to search for an answer.
After a pause, Zerban said:
“It’s a basic right that people should have access to the care required to live a productive life. We have to be responsible with the taxpayer dollar whenever we are the steward of them -- and I don’t think anybody disagrees with that in any way shape or form -- and so, if you’re going to be in a situation where you’re being the steward of taxpayer dollars, you have to be conscious of how you’re utilizing them. Again, what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to achieve unregulated profits and corporate greed for doing this, or are you trying to provide care for the greatest good.”
I had one more question, something I expected Zerban to have no problems explaining. Democrats and Republicans spend much time talking about protecting and building up the middle class. Zerban’s website frequently mentions the middle class, using a testimonial from former Senator Russ Feingold that say Zerban understands the struggles of the working and middle classes.
So I framed the question this way:
“You talked about rebuilding the middle class. So we have a better idea of what you’re talking about -- and this was a question asked indirectly of Barack Obama back in 2008 during a debate -- when you’re talking about the middle class, what income levels do you have in mind for single adults or families?”
After that question, he was gone. Three minutes later, one of Zerban’s campaign staffers called me back (not Zerban who also had my number), explaining that Rob’s cell reception went out and wanted to know if my interview was over.
Zerban’s cell phone didn’t just cut out, his words were clear and I stand by the recording. [When the staffer called to apologize for the disconnection, I said to him, "In fact, I thought he said 'I'm done and hung up.'" The campaign staffer contends that Zerban wouldn't hang up and added that cell phone reception is poor in Kenosha depending on the provider.] The staffer asked if he could explain for Zerban what their campaign's position is on the middle class; he said he wanted it be off on the record.
[The staffer clarified today in a phone call that if I were to force them to pinpoint the middle class by numbers, he would refer me to their campaign position that income earners of more than $250,000 should be returned to Clinton era tax rates. From that, the staffer said, we could extrapolate how their campaign views the middle class -- that they would not raise taxes on folks making less than $250,000 because they’re considered middle class and folks above $250,000 would return to the Clinton era tax rates.]
Invariably, some will think my middle class question was unfair. Was it?
The Economist defines the middle class as the point where people have roughly one-third of their income remaining for discretionary spending after paying for food and shelter. Definitions like this don't come naturally for us ordinary folks, but if you’re a candidate running for U.S. Congress, using the middle class as an essential building block for your campaign’s message, then the meaning shouldn’t be lost, or your cell phone reception for that matter.