In Nevada, a candidate’s fecklessness on full display

Some sharp interview questions leave a congressional hopeful squirming

NEVADA — In this state, where it’s legal to carry an unconcealed handgun, John Oceguera, the Speaker of the Nevada Assembly, didn’t even need to unholster his pistol to shoot himself in the foot.

He’d probably prefer to imagine taking aim at the messengers—the political journalists who roasted him on two television programs, and in print, this week.

Oceguera, a Democrat, is running to unseat a first-term incumbent Republican, Joe Heck, in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses the Las Vegas suburbs. Though there’s a contested Democratic primary on June 12, Oceguera is the party’s presumptive nominee, and voters have, at least so far, heard little from the candidates about the issues.

Commentator and columnist Jon Ralston attempted to rectify that when he interviewed Oceguera Monday on “Face to Face,” his TV program that airs in markets around the state. After the broadcast, voters may have found themselves enlightened—not by what the office-seeker said, but by what he didn’t say.

Ralston, a respected, longtime observer of Nevada politics, led the interview with what had to be an obvious question for the Democrat: Did Oceguera support the Affordable Care Act, the signature policy achievement of President Obama’s term, whose future is now in question? The transcript alone is cringe-inducing:

Oceguera:“I think that anything that we can do that would put transparency into insurance companies is something we can work on…”

Ralston: “Is that a yes, you would have voted for the Affordable Care Act?”

Oceguera: “No, that’s a…”

Ralston: “You’re not going to commit to the Affordable Care Act?”

Oceguera: “You know, Jon, this is in front of the Supreme Court now. I don’t have a crystal ball. I think it would be premature to say what’s going to happen there, but…”

Ralston: “I’m not asking you to be Antonin Scalia. I’m asking you to be John Oceguera if you were in Congress. Joe Heck said no to the Affordable Care Act. Do you say yes?”

Oceguera: “What I say is if we can make health care more transparent, make insurance companies more transparent, and get the cost of health care down, then I’m for that.”

Ralston: “You are not going to commit to the singular achievement of Barack Obama’s first term, the Affordable Care Act? You’re not going to commit that you would’ve voted for it?”

Oceguera: “What I’m gonna commit to is we need more transparency in health care, and this is a step in that direction.”

The following day, after having had several hours to confer with campaign staff and sharpen his answers, Oceguera again found himself in the media’s sights. The Tuesday forum was “The Agenda,” a political talk show hosted by two veteran political columnists, the left-leaning Hugh Jackson and libertarian Elizabeth Crum. Despite their divergent outlooks, both appeared incredulous as Crum tried to pin down the Democrat:

Crum: “Why won’t you take a position on that one way or another and just say how you would have voted?”

Oceguera: “Well, because I’m trying to look forward. Everybody keeps trying to ask questions in the past… I’m trying to look forward and you know this is what I think. If the, if we can make health care more affordable, if we can make it more accessible, if we can make insurance companies more accountable, then I’m for that.”

Crum: “Do you think the Affordable Care Act, you’ve read the bill, I assume?”

Oceguera: “There are a number of provisions that do those things. So, because I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court—whether it’s here {in Nevada) or it isn’t here—those are things that I’ll fight for.”

In both interviews, the journalists’ questions were appropriate, and the follow-ups plentiful—which only brought Oceguera’s repeated equivocations into sharper relief.

But the damage wasn’t done even then, as Ralston lampooned the candidate in his Wednesday column for the Las Vegas Sun. The Sun is known as the liberal paper in this city, but the piece pulled no punches, starting with the headline, “Oceguera makes case for … Heck.” The column opened:

The inescapable conclusion after congressional candidate John Oceguera’s performance on television this week is either he believes in nothing or is scared of everything

Or both.

Either way, if there are any Democrats who can defend his spectacularly evasive and all-too-revealing appearances on “Face to Face” and “The Agenda,” they should be ashamed of themselves. Oceguera’s refusal to take positions on seminal Democratic initiatives such as health care reform and the stimulus are emblematic of a party whose candidates hope to win by hiding their core beliefs or have decided to discard them — at least temporarily.

Ralston, who always relishes a good sparring match, later recounted the segment of the interview that focused on the stimulus, one of the other centerpieces of the Obama administration’s policy record:

Oceguera again refused to take a position, telling me, “You can go back and rehash the 2010 elections if you want,” something I have neither the desire nor the temperament to do and which did not have anything to do with my question.

Would you have voted for it? I gamely asked the speaker.

“I’m going to look forward,” he replied.

At that point, I was looking forward, too. To a commercial break. Or a stiff drink. Or a 16-ton weight falling on my head.

Clearly, journalists out here were deriving some satisfaction from seeing the hapless Oceguera take his lumps. Even Ralston’s Sun colleague, J. Patrick Coolican, joined the fray with a Thursday column that predicted that following the TV interviews, “Oceguera’s campaign for Congress … is all but finished.”

But there’s a more important issue in this episode than the media getting the upper hand, for a change, on a campaign. (And, truth be told, the harm to Oceguera is largely self-inflicted.)

In a previous post, I flagged some smart commentary about how the money-fueled ad war is likely to loom largest in congressional races, precisely because voters have less information from other sources about the candidates in those races.

The remedy is for journalists to do all they can to supply voters with useful information about those candidates, and where they stand on the issues. That’s just what political journalists in the Silver State were attempting to do in these interviews—and to their credit, they were doing so well in advance of Election Day. (It’s important to note that this work is facilitated by what is, for local TV stations in this era, a laudable commitment to public affairs broadcasting: “Face to Face” and “The Agenda” each digest political issues on-air five days a week.)

Oceguera turned out to be artlessly coy about where he stands—which, at least, gave voters one type of information about him. As the cycle continues, other, more prepared candidates will, hopefully, be more forthcoming with substantive answers. That will make for less awkwardly entertaining television. But it should also make for a better-informed electorate.

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.