Last night, UGA’s College Republicans and Young Democrats faced off in the annual rendition of The Great Debate, an event where each organization argues its party’s platform in front of a student audience. I was dispatched to cover it and must say that if we are to judge these debates by their entertainment value, I would give this one a 10/10. Students turned out in droves for a miniature version of what is certainly the most divisive presidential campaign that millennials have seen thus far. And we were not disappointed. What we saw was just as exciting as the first presidential debate, complete with thunderous policy disputes, borderline character assassinations, and plentiful disruptions from the loyal followers of one Gary Johnson.
The College Republicans were represented by Amber Webb and Michael Sowell, the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the organization, as well as Brennan Mancil, the Chairman of the Georgia Association of College Republicans. Representing the Young Democrats were President Campbell Wilks, Field Director Grace Maultsby, and Miriam Mokhemar.
Much like the presidential debate, things started out calmly with both sides opining on how to combat the loss of manufacturing jobs. Predictably, the Democrats focused on workforce development and the expansion of energy and infrastructure jobs while the Republicans emphasized pro-business policies to attract industry and innovative new sectors like space tourism. The first sign that this would be a heated debate came when Mancil criticized the Democrats for wanting to “punish success” and also suggested that some non-STEM college degrees aren’t as valuable as others (you can imagine how this played over with a crowd that was presumably full of Political Science majors).
Things puttered along after that with Republicans calling for the construction of a “structure” or “physical barrier” (not a wall) on the southern border that would be paid for by “reapportioning funds” (not by Mexico). This was typical. For the first half-hour of the debate, both sides largely avoided the 800-pound toupee-wearing elephant in the room and only indirectly discussed his controversial stances on immigration, refugees, and Russia.
It wasn’t until we arrived at cyber security did the fireworks start up. After the Republicans claimed that President Obama’s weak foreign policy has opened up the door for Vladimir Putin to launch cyberattacks against election infrastructure, the Democrats pointed out that Donald Trump called for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. They said that Republicans should deal with their controversial candidate in a more straightforward manner rather than tiptoeing around the changes he has brought to the party. Sowell clarified that the College Republicans do support Trump, prompting Wilks to respond, “that’s disappointing.” The crowd was either jeering or applauding depending on what side of the room you stood.
After Trump was mentioned, the ice was broken. The crowd became a much larger factor, especially when the audience began tweeting in questions. On the topic of sexual assault on college campuses, both sides largely agreed on the issue and solutions for it. However, the Democrats suggested that consent awareness classes should be targeted at fraternity houses, triggering a strong response from the Republican side of the room. Another tweet questioned why the Libertarian Party was not being represented on stage. While the Republicans and the Democrats were explaining why they agreed with the decision to exclude the Libertarians, hecklers in the back began shouting at them, forcing the moderators to step in and calm things down. Mancil received a follow-up question on his claim that some degrees were less valuable than others. His response largely reiterated his earlier point, and was not well taken by the Democratic half of the room.
After the debate I spoke with Mancil and Wilks. Mancil said the Republicans did better on the pre-prepared questions than the audience questions, which he thought elicited more of an emotional response from the crowd. While he conceded that attacking the Republican Party with Trump was a useful tactic, Mancil also emphasized that the party is more than just one person and that critics should not paint the GOP with such a wide brush. Wilks said she enjoyed hearing what the College Republicans had to say on the issues. She thought her party took on the day on social issues, but were perhaps not aggressive enough in using Trump as an attack point.
My main takeaway was that both sides were trying a little bit too hard to sound like enemies. Sowell spoke of America being at a crossroads, with each party representing a very different path we would have to choose from. But focusing on the policy side (as opposed to the political side) of the debate, one never would have guessed this. The Republicans and Democrats largely agreed on national issues like curbing illegal immigration, vetting refugees, strengthening foreign alliances, and patching up the Affordable Care Act. They were even closer on local issues including preventing sexual assault on campus, ending discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, and reforming certain aspects of the criminal justice system.
Both sides blamed the media for increasing ideological polarization in the country. But perhaps they should take a closer look at their own talking points and the way they frame public policy debates. A casual observer would have never guessed how much agreement there really is between the parties. He or she would have only remembered the scuffles over the presidential campaign. So why all of the fighting? The answer is not as simple as “the parties are intentionally creating polarization.” There are real differences between them. However, I suspect that both sides have a certain interest in making those differences seem more distinct than they actually are. Good way to turn out the vote, right?
This debate raised some interesting questions for the future of both parties (this was a debate between millennials after all). The Democrats were obviously hesitant with Clinton. They seemed much more comfortable speaking about Bernie Sanders and his political revolution than when defending Clinton for her email scandal. Republicans were even more scattered. In her closing statement, Wilks said that bigotry and prejudice are still major elements of the Republican Party. Her statement was met by a loud negative response from the Republicans, who had spent much of the evening claiming to be a “big tent party” that accepts people from all different walks of life. But that does that big tent cover racism and bigotry? I’ll leave that question for the audience. Light up the comment board on it.
Overall, this was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a political event in college. If the satisfaction test is on whether I would come back again, then both the College Republicans and Young Democrats, along with all of the campus organizations that hosted, did one hell of a job.