This past Thursday night, Senator Rick Santorum and Governor Howard Dean faced off in a debate at Cornell’s Bailey Hall. The free debate, entitled, “The Role of Government in a Free Society,” drew hundreds of students as we draw closer to the presidential election in just a couple of weeks.
A “living room” setup was put together on stage that created the feeling of an intellectual discussion rather than that of a fierce political debate. After all, neither man is currently running for any position.
After introductions from Jess Reif ’14, Chair of the Cornell Republicans, as well as the Cornell Republicans’ and Cornell Democrats’ vice-chairmen and a few faculty members, each man had opening statements. Santorum, staying true to his religious convictions, said that our “rights come to us from God” rather than the government. Dean on the other hand emphasized that the government should provide people rights, including that to marry whomever one loves. Dean emphasized that the Constitution is a “living document, meant to be changed.” He mentioned that slavery was of course originally part of the Constitution, but that has been ended, and even just the fact that the founders included a way to amend the document shows that the founders meant for it to be a living document, one that is “meant to evolve as the country evolves.”
On education, Dean and Santorum actually agreed quite a bit, both saying there is a need for government to play a role in this sector. Dean argued that student loans would become the country’s next big issue, and Santorum said that he agreed with the old system of using banks as middlemen for such loans. Santorum and Dean both spoke towards the idea of the government investing in research to aid innovation.
On healthcare there was much more differentiation. Santorum said that the biggest issue in healthcare is cost. The private sector solves the cost issue, according to Santorum, by letting consumers chose cheaper options. But since the individuals do not pay the bulk of the cost, Americans use it too much, he argued. Santorum likened it to paying $500 a month for food and being able to eat as much as you want – we would all be extraordinarily obese. So, Santorum said, we should let the marketplace work in order to eliminate such a problem. Dean, or should I say Dr. Howard Dean M.D., rebutted, saying that healthcare does not work in the private sector because people are uninformed and therefore do not “shop around” as they do in other private sectors. The government should therefore, Dean argued, be the “referee,” and create a system of preventative care with incentives for early procedures.
On the question of how to decide who to vote for, things got heated. Dean said just to decide to vote at all, adding, “your values will decide for you – almost no one votes on issues.” He said that there are values that each generation cares about; the youngest voters concern themselves more with climate change and poverty, while the previous generations care about gay marriage and abortion. Santorum argued that people do indeed vote on issues, but acknowledged that perceptions do matter. He pointed to the presidential debates as stages for shaping the image and perception of a candidate - something of which he feels Mitt Romney has done an excellent job. Dean cut back in, saying that the banking establishment “damn near brought this country down,” and that “you can’t trust people whose only agenda is to oppose the President of the United States,” at which point there was thunderous applause. Santorum calmly rebutted that the President simply has a limited role, something many people do not comprehend. But getting a bit more energized he proclaimed, “the President is immoral!” which received loud whistles and applause from the other half of the room. Santorum then took things a step further, declaring, “We are going to become the next Greece” if Obama is reelected. “He’s not telling the truth,” added Santorum.
Finally we entered the student questions portion.
Jon Weinberg, ILR ’13, asked what the government should do to put students to work when they finish college. Dean responded that the Republicans shot down the jobs bill, so that certainly won’t be helping students. But, he added, students should not be pessimistic - kids are starting businesses through the internet, where anyone can go online and try to do it themselves. With a sudden moderate stance, Dean added that the government should not be expected to create jobs except in times of crisis. Santorum stuck with the classic conservative argument that taxes are not good for business, and therefore the government should lower taxes, giving more money to businesses which can then spend that money on hiring employees.
Jessica Borenstein, CAS ’14, asked about the role of the U.S. in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Dean said that Iran should certainly not have any nuclear capacity, and that Obama’s sanctions work very well. Santorum agreed that sanctions are the proper way to handle the situation, but said that as a Senator he pushed for harsher sanctions and in turn then-Senator Joe Biden filibustered and the sanctions did not pass. Santorum followed up with that, remarking that Iran wants to wipe Israel off the earth, and that the U.S. needs to draw a line in the sand. If Iran passes it, Santorum urged, we should act. Santorum ended his part by saying that he feels that the President is isolating Israel, which Dean disagreed with.
The final question asked if the benefits of voter identification laws are worth the disenfranchisement. Santorum said people need photo identification for lots of things, and the laws are being put in place to add more integrity to our voting system. He seemed to laugh off the opposing view, saying “I don’t get it.” Dean rebutted with possibly his strongest monologue of the night, reminding Santorum that his own state of Pennsylvania shot down the law, and that there have been just 81 cases of voter fraud in 10 years. He got very heated up at this point, and said the laws are disenfranchising voters of specific demographics, many of whom tend to vote for Democrats. He reminded Santorum of the comments by Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), who had said, “Voter ID […] is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” implying that the laws are built to create Republican victories. And to top it off, he directly accused the Republican Party of purposefully attempting to disenfranchise millions of Americans in a partisan effort to cheat the system.
Overall the debate was a huge success. Though it got away from the topic of the role of government at times, it did hit many of the major issues discussed in politics today. Noticeably absent, however, were any questions pertaining to social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Many believe this to be a purposeful choice on the part of the Cornell Republicans, Cornell Democrats, and the faculty, due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of young people are socially liberal, and therefore the discussion would not have much influence or spur much intellectual debate. “Why talk about social issues? Students almost all agree on those issues – it would have been unproductive to hear Santorum go on about his social agenda rather than have that good, intellectual debate on other issues that we just had,” explained one student.