Americans Face Off

Tempers flared as Democrats and Republicans debate

News | Will Savage | October 2008

Election year in the United States has come around once again, bringing with it heated debates and promises of change.  While only citizens can vote, the new American president will affect politics around the world.  Candidates from both sides have promised change from the last eight years, and many people are hoping for exactly that.

The high level of interest here was more than evident at the political debate between Democrats Abroad representative John McQueen and Republicans Abroad representative Patrick Egan on September 24.  The event was held at the Volkstheater Forum, a meeting space in the U3 station, and as 7:00 p.m approached, few seats remained.  Minutes later, the hall was packed and several people stood for the two hour debate.  The walls of the room were lined with posters from elections past, some dating to campaigns from the earliest days of the Republic, including one that depicted "George Washington vs. himself."  Another poster featuring the 1940 election between Wendell Willkie and Franklin Roosevelt quoted Roosevelt referring to Willkie’s mistress, "If they want to play dirty politics in the end, we’ve got our own people ... We can’t have any of our principal speakers refer to it, but the people down the line can get it out."  Each poster featured a "sleaze-o-meter" in the lower right hand corner, which measured the level of dirty campaigning by each side during the election process.  Some – including a few we remember – were off the chart.

Moderator Dr. Michael Freund launched the debate by explaining the procedure. It would involve opening statements from each side, followed by three formal questions posed by the moderator. As in the U.S. presidential debates, each candidate was given the opportunity both respond to the question and to rebut his opponent’s answer, a format designed to encourage civility and a chance for each side to be heard. This was an emotionally charged election, and that feeling was tangible.  By the end of the evening, it was clear that most had come not to listen and learn, but to be heard and to attack views with which they did not agree.

Democratic representative McQueen gave the first statement.  He called current U.S. President George W. Bush "the worst president in the nation’s history," and equated a McCain presidency with "a continuation of the last eight years." The crowd voiced enthusiastic approval, and it became relatively obvious that most of those present were Obama sympathizers. There was sporadic applause as a response to even the slightest mention of regime change.  McQueen went on to discuss important election themes, including the war in Iraq, the U.S. health care system, and the current state of American public schools.

Republican Patrick Egan opened his statement from a different angle, pointing out that the American political spectrum as a whole is much farther right than its European counterpart.  For this reason, he said that his purpose was "not to sway your opinions, but to explain why McCain will win" the election.  "John McCain is not George Bush," he emphasized, and it was this fact that had to be recognized before a constructive debate could take place.  Egan then went on the offensive, criticizing Obama for having spectacular goals but no concrete way to achieve them.  He also questioned Obama’s political experience and his ability to work across party lines.

By now, the audience had made it clear which side they had come to support, and several people had raised their hands to refute Egan’s statements.  But they would have to wait their turn.

One issue that received a lot of attention was the current situation in Iraq.  "How can we expect progress from Democrats after three years of agreeing with Republicans on this issue in Congress?"  Dr. Freund asked McQueen. Those votes were designed to aid troops already there, McQueen responded, to ensure that they were well-equipped. McQueen outlined Obama’s plan for a slow pullout over 18 months, and an increased presence in Afghanistan.  He emphasized the U.S.’s failure to stabilize Iraq and quoted the president’s top officer in the combat zone, General David Petraeus.

"Victory is the last word I would use to describe the current situation in Iraq," General Petraeus said in early September.

Egan jumped on the idea of pulling out U.S. troops.

"A withdrawal would tarnish the reputation of the United States, [in a way] that could not be fixed for decades," he argued, adding that "the United States has a commitment to that region, and if we leave, it would give other powers [Iran] a potential opening."

Throughout the question part of the debate, the audience had kept relatively quiet, save for a few laughs or snorts at comments made by the debaters.  People were fervently taking notes, notes that would soon come to the forefront of the discussion. In the Open Forum, the audience would get the chance to present questions to the speakers.

Again, the political affiliation of ninety percent of the room became obvious, when nearly every hand raised was eager to challenge the Republican. The debaters fielded questions one after the other.  With each successive barb, emotions ran higher. A few members of the audience were more concerned with having their viewpoint voiced than asking their question, including several who made absolutely sure they were allowed the full minute to ask their question.  One attendee even attempted to use her time to rebut the last point Egan had just discussed.

The most provocative moment came when one audience member asked Egan if he believed Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was qualified to be president.  Egan took a second to choose his words.

"Barack Obama is less qualified to be in that position than Sarah Palin is," he commented.  This response came off as a little strange, considering that the last twenty minutes had been spent arguing over each candidate’s level of executive experience, not just experience at any level.  This non-answer answer seemed to rile the crowd even further, until Dr. Freund was able to restore order again.

After this, the debate began to wind down, ending with closing statements from each representative. Up to this point, McQueen had been silent on the topic of Palin, but his closing argument more than made up for it. He blasted McCain’s choice of a running mate, saying she was a chronic "liar and abuser of power."  He pointed to her undisguised hostility towards gays and lesbians as well as a few of her other religion-based beliefs, including the outlawing of abortion and the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

Egan took another direction in his closing statement, reminding the audience that tax cuts initiated by Republicans during the last 25 years had yielded a steady increase in income for all Americans. [In fact, U.S. household income has declined almost without relief since 1972 and Richard Nixon’s uncoupling of the dollar from the gold standard, a statistic undisputed by economists. – Ed.]

Unlike many Europeans, he continued, many Americans want to keep their money to themselves, believing that they know better what to do with it than the government does.  After two and a half hours, the debate had come to its conclusion.

Over the course of the evening, opinions and ideas were offered from left and right, covering topics from the situation in the Middle East to action on the impending environmental crisis, but few members of the audience, it seemed, were converted.

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