It would be hard to name a winner in Monday's debate between incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the Republican who holds Tennessee's 3rd District Congressional seat, and Dr. Mary Headrick, his Democratic challenger. That's because it takes two to participate in a debate. Fleischmann, as is his custom, refused to do so. He would not directly address the concerns raised by his opponent. Instead, he provided audience members with obviously well-rehearsed talking points and self-serving remarks. District voters deserve a more engaged representative. Headrick is that person.
Headrick, running an uphill campaign against a well-funded opponent in a heavily Republican district, pointedly and properly challenged Fleischmann to talk about his and his party's stance on the economy, health care, taxes, the demise of the middle class, the struggle of the working poor and the GOP penchant for serving the rich at the expense of the less well off. He responded with diatribes against President Obama's health care law and by attempting to tie Headrick to what he called the president's "tax-borrow-and-spend policies."
That's playing to the Republicans in the district. It is not engaging in debate with a knowledgeable challenger who has facts at her command, who is unafraid of public scrutiny and who clearly outshines the incumbent.
Headrick also challenged Fleischmann to explain his unbending allegiance to his party's partisan agenda and his heavy reliance on fat-cat and multinational corporate donors to bankroll his candidacy. He couldn't or wouldn't. The incumbent offered only more of his usual rhetoric: demands for an unaffordable tax cut, unspecified reductions in government and unthinking opposition to President Obama. That kind of talk and avoiding debates make up the congressman's personal formula for success. He's determined to stick to it. No additional debates are scheduled.
That might be good 3rd District politics, but it thwarts voters who want more meat and less sizzle to their politics. It's hard to measure a candidate like Fleischmann who refuses or is incapable of open-ended conversation with the electorate. He prefers, instead, to parrot the party line, confident that will promote his re-election.
It might, but Fleischmann should show more respect for constituents by addressing issues that concern them. He's not talking much about funding for the Chickamauga Dam lock, for instance, though what happens to it directly affects his district. He won't talk, either, about his strong allegiance to party leaders and his refusal to cast votes that would anger them - even when such a vote would be beneficial to his constituents.
Fleischmann obviously prefers a cowardly coast on shallow sound-bites to election day, rather than risking original thoughts that might wound him. So much for an authentic platform and a series of high-profile debates with a superbly qualified challenger. That leaves him in the shadows touting a recent magazine article that said he's the second-least-likely congressman to be involved in scandal - a poor retreat from explaining and defending his suspect political positions.
District residents may approve of Fleischmann's personal conduct, but they should be concerned about additional embarrassment brought to the district by re-electing a do-nothing congressman with little to show for his first term. Headrick, a physician with a formidable record of working to improve the lives, health and prosperity of all Tennesseans through her medical practice and her volunteer work, is the far better choice for District 3.