In a year of clear choices – think Obama versus Romney – it’s hard to imagine a clearer choice than the race for the 26th Congressional District seat.
The two candidates running in the newly drawn district, home to Buffalo and Niagara Falls, differ on virtually every major issue facing the country, from taxes and the economy to health care and Social Security.
It’s a race that pits four-term Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, against businessman Michael H. Madigan, a Grand Island Republican.
“There’s a clear contrast between my opponent and me,” Madigan says.
It’s not an overstatement to suggest that may be one of the few things he and Higgins agree on.
Ask the two men about the economy, and Higgins will tell you that now is not the time to cut taxes or vital spending.
To make his point, he introduced legislation this year to spend $1.2 trillion on a five-year plan to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges. He also voted to end the Bush-era tax cuts.
“You can’t cut your way to prosperity,” he said. “What you have to do is invest in the economy.”
Madigan, a tea party activist, is at the other end of the tax-and-spend spectrum. He wants to cut the corporate tax rate but acknowledges that other taxes – he points to the payroll tax cut approved by Congress – may have to be raised.
“We’re dealing with a huge deficit,” he said. “The reality is, we need to look at everything. We can’t take anything off the table.”
Even more telling perhaps is how Madigan and Higgins differ on how Congress responded to the Great Recession.
Higgins voted for the auto industry and Wall Street bailouts and the $842 billion economic-stimulus package.
Madigan said he would have saved Wall Street but not the automakers. He also would have said no to the stimulus.
The two candidates also differ on Medicare and health care reform. Madigan said he would repeal “Obamacare” and support GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s plan for stabilizing Medicare.
Under Romney’s plan, people would eventually get a fixed payment from the government, adjusted for inflation, to pay for either private insurance or a government plan modeled on Medicare. Existing Medicare beneficiaries and those nearing retirement would not be affected.
“The reality is, the program is going broke,” Madigan said. “We need to be honest with the American people.”
Higgins says Romney’s plan would take health care for the elderly back to 1965, before there was Medicare. He’s willing to consider higher eligibility ages and larger employee contributions as a way to preserve the system but opposes any effort to privatize it.
“They want to destroy Medicare,” Higgins said of Republicans in the House.
Higgins and Madigan also part ways on how to save Social Security. Higgins opposes privatization. Madigan thinks it’s an idea worth exploring.
On foreign policy, the two candidates differ on everything from Afghanistan to Iraq.
As a congressman, Higgins voted to go to war with Iraq but more recently supported the U.S. withdrawal. He also thinks it’s time to get out of Afghanistan, another war he once supported. “What has changed is that nothing has changed,” he said of Afghanistan. “We’re now talking about negotiating with the Taliban after fighting them for 10 years.”
Madigan says he would have supported sending troops into both countries but opposed the eventual surge in Afghanistan. He also would have opposed the large-scale withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
In Madigan’s eyes, Higgins spends too much time on local issues he considers “luxuries” and too little time on legitimate national issues. He mentioned Higgins’ role as an advocate for waterfront development and removing the Skyway as two examples of misplaced priorities. “He’s really trying to distract from his record, which is a record of failure,” Madigan said.
Higgins is quick to defend his work on the waterfront. “Those ‘luxuries’ are things that have frustrated people for decades,” he said. “They also have resulted in investment that has produced real economic gain.”