By Benjamin Pontz, Event Coverage Director
With just 11 days until the 2016 election, the College Independents convened their major party counterparts for a debate on public policy issues. Piper O’Keefe and Marley Dizney-Swanson represented the College Democrats while Nick Arbaugh and Scott Moore represented the College Republicans. Danielle Jones, president of the College Independents, served as the primary moderator.
The 90 minute debate spanned a breadth of topics including several that were not discussed significantly during the three presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whose increasingly divisive and vitriolic campaign was juxtaposed with the largely civil discourse that prevailed in the Schmucker Art Gallery.
Douglas Page, visiting assistant professor of political science, served as the judge for the evening, and he ultimately gave the Democrats a victory for having better answers on five of the evening’s ten topics with three he scored as ties and two for the Republicans.
The debate opened on the subject of immigration, and both sides focused on illegal immigration and proposals to reform the system. Republicans argued that many of today’s immigrants do not actively seek to integrate into American society like immigrants of the past, which drew a sharp rebuke from Dizney-Swanson, who stated that forcing patriotism is a “dangerous road.”
As the conversation shifted to Syria and refugees, the Republicans landed blows when the Democrats could not identify specifically which rebel groups they advocated arming and how that policy would be different from an approach that has failed thus far. Democrats argued that state governors should not have a right to refuse entrance to refugees. Arbaugh retorted that it is a gross abuse of executive power to require state governors to implement a President’s foreign policy agenda.
The next segment of the debate focused on warrantless surveillance and opened with Benjamin Franklin’s venerated quote regarding trading essential liberty for temporary security. Arbaugh pounced on the subject and decried the USA PATRIOT Act as a “gross infringement” of the Constitution. His counterpart, Scott Moore, went further.
“It’s better to die for freedom than it is to live in a police state,” Moore said, catalyzing some palpable emotion in the room.
Both sides largely agreed on the need to invest in fighting cyber attacks before the conversation shifted to the environment, a topic that was notably absent from the three presidential debates.
Specifically, debaters considered the controversy surrounding a pipeline in North Dakota. Not surprisingly, the Democrats were against it while the Republicans supported it. When Democrats suggested that Donald Trump had a vested interest in the pipeline’s building due to campaign contributions from a contractor, the Republicans pounced and pivoted to discussing the “pay to play” scandal that allegedly occurred within the Clinton Foundation, which drew visible disgust from the Democratic panelists and one of the few diversions from hard policy of the evening.
The next topic, education, highlighted sharply divided views between the two sides with the Democrats advocating a federalized system of education and repeatedly mentioning the divide between a student’s educational opportunity in South Dakota versus one in Massachusetts while the Republicans suggested that the federal government’s role should be severely limited and that the taxpayers who fund the schools should have the most say in what is taught.
The audience had a chance to submit questions via text message, and two of those questions concluded the debate: one on taxes and one on military spending.
The two sides unsurprisingly diverged on taxes with the Democrats suggesting that the wealthiest Americans — which they defined as those making “millions and millions of dollars” before later suggesting that anyone whose income is above $250,000 might see tax increases — should pay more and that the government must close loopholes. The Republicans agreed on the need to close loopholes, but suggested drastic reductions in taxes to stimulate economic growth; they argued that raising taxes would actually decrease revenue because it could hinder innovation.
On military spending, both sides largely agreed that elected officials in both parties have abused their power to generate unnecessary pork barrel defense contracts that have bloated the military industrial complex without really contributing to defense readiness. They suggested reinvesting waste within the Defense Department into other programs such as cyber security.
In the end, few minds in the largely stratified audience comprised largely of members from the respective debating organizations may have been changed, but civil discourse on public policy can only be a win for democracy.