Senate debate: Heller, Berkley must move on to big issues

Nevada voters will get their first chance to see their junior U.S. senator, Republican Dean Heller, debate his Democratic challenger, Rep. Shelley Berkley, at 8 p.m. Thursday. The discussion will air live on VegasPBS, Channel 10, from the studio of KNPB-TV on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. Mitch Fox, longtime host of "Nevada Week in Review," will moderate.

So far, the campaign has been conducted mainly through TV ads, full of charges of chicanery. The result has been neither very enlightening nor exactly statesmanlike.

The House Ethics Committee voted unanimously in July to investigate seven-term Rep. Berkley. She advocated for federal spending for kidney treatment without disclosing that it might have benefited her husband, a nephrologist. If you watch any TV, no doubt you've seen the ads hammering Rep. Berkley as an unethical politician. Rep. Berkley's TV ads attempt to tar Sen. Heller by linking him to a swindler who incorporated his company in Nevada while Heller was serving as secretary of state. The company bilked investors of some $64 million. Sen. Heller says he had no role in the case.

Voters don't expect candidates to just stand there and take it. The most effective defense is often a counter-attack, no matter how far-fetched the attempt to smear the opponent.

But while both these candidates have served in the House, this is a Senate race. One of these candidates presumably will serve for six years or more in what is supposed to be the most sober and powerful deliberative body in the world, considering treaties, confirming or rejecting judicial and Cabinet nominees, hopefully taking the longer view in setting federal policy for decades to come.

The Founders didn't envision popular election for senators - originally they were chosen by legislatures to represent the interests of states. When popular election of senators was proposed, the argument against it was precisely that it would demean the upper house by requiring members to kiss babies and descend into the hurly-burly of retail politics.

Serious problems face this nation. Voters tonight will be looking not for finger-pointing and "gotcha" moments, not for the political equivalent of mud wrestling down at the Dew Drop Inn, but for some serious discussion of how federal tax, spending, regulatory and monetary policies can be adjusted to again set the American economy free to create jobs and prosperity. It also would be reassuring to hear some thoughtful discussion of recent events overseas, less in terms of who was at fault than where we go from here.

Ever greater debt, taxes that punish success and regulations that prevent the development of America's domestic energy resources have not helped.

Sen. Heller and Rep. Berkley have shied away from media interviews and public appearances that can be recorded by the other side, largely choosing the safety of private gatherings where the guest list can be controlled.

Election Day is less than six weeks away. It's time for Sen. Heller and Rep. Berkley to be less managed and more open. Thursday night's debate should move their campaign to a higher plain.