Politicians debate election issues

Melissa Weigel

Former Democratic presidential nominee hopeful Howard Dean and former Secretary of Education William Bennett squared off in a debate about issues important to this year’s presidential election in the Pavilion on Sept. 18 as part of the University’s Parents’ Weekend. Professor Frank Pryor of the Political Science department moderated.

Both debaters were allowed to give opening addresses that lasted about 15-20 minutes each. A question and answer session followed. Both the moderator and audience members were allowed to ask questions.

Dr. Bennett spent about half of his opening address describing his background. He started off by speaking to the parents in the audience about his experiences with his children and school. He grew up an Irish Catholic in Brooklyn, where one was expected to be a Democrat. He eventually switched parties, though, after the civil war of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

“I thought my party abandoned me on issues of human rights,” Bennett said. “Most importantly, they abandoned me on the defense of freedom, especially against Communism.”

Bennett continued by moving to his principal topic, terrorism. According to Bennett, the most important issues in this election are “terror, terror, terror, in that order.” He believes the United States will be hit again by terrorists sometime in the near future. However, he is more concerned about targets that tend to be overlooked.

“Can you think of a more vulnerable place than an elementary school, with people going in and out all of the time? Just look at what happened in Chechnya,” he said, referring to a recent incident when Chechnyan separatists held over 300 Russian children hostage in a school, eventually killing many.

Bennett ended by defending the war against Iraq and President Bush. He listed several reasons why the invasion of Iraq was justified, even if no weapons of mass destruction were found. These reasons included the 17 United Nations resolutions condemning Iraq for security violations, the slaughter and torture of thousands of Muslims by Saddam Hussein and the fact that the now-deposed Iraqi leader harbored terrorists and supported terrorists in Palestine.

“He invaded two nations, launched missiles at Israel and tried to assassinate a U.S. president [George H. W. Bush],” Bennett said. “He himself was a WMD.”

Bennett finished by defending the incumbent president and criticizing Democratic candidate John Kerry. He condemned Kerry for not being clear on where he stands on important issues.

“I have had my differences with Bush, but I knew what he stands for,” Bennett concluded to loud applause.

Dean opened by saying to Bennett, “I appreciate your view, but it won’t come as a surprise that I disagree with you.”

Dean focused on different issues than Bennett did; his principal topics for the election are health insurance, fiscal responsibility, jobs, public education and national security. He strongly criticized the president for running up a half-trillion dollar debt.

“We need to balance the budget in this country. You can’t run a family that way, much less a government,” Dean said, adding to the students in the audience, “Your generation will pay.”

He also defended his reasons for not supporting the current war in Iraq, despite supporting the previous three wars the U.S. had been involved in – Afghanistan, Kosovo and the first Iraq war.

“I didn’t support the war on Iraq primarily because I didn’t think the president was being truthful about the reasons for going there,” Dean said.

He listed several other reasons, such as the fact that although Saddam Hussein was a terrible leader, so are many others throughout the world. Also, Dean believes that the intelligence was somewhat twisted and that Saddam Hussein didn’t pose an immediate threat to national security.

He ended enthusiastically, saying, “I want a different president because I want a different America which includes everyone, even middle-class Americans.”

After their opening statements, the question-and-answer part of the debate began. The moderator, as well as students and parents from the audience, posed questions, ranging from the war on Iraq to education to health insurance and jobs. Dean and Bennett disagreed on most topics, but were able to respond to each other to clarify their stances.

Dean and Bennett both seemed pleased with how the debate went.

“I thought it was very good, candid and good-spirited,” Bennett said. “The real loser out of the debate is Kerry since Dean did not say strongly what Kerry stands for.”

Dean likewise was satisfied with the debate. “I thought it was great. I wish we had more debates like that on Capitol Hill,” he said.

The students and faculty members who attended the debate also expressed a positive reaction.

“I think it was a great night for the University. No matter who people vote for, it’s important for them to get information about the issues,” Rev. John Stack, O.S.A., vice president for student life, said. “It wasn’t about who won or lost.”

Tom Mogan, director of Student Development, who, along with the Campus Activities Team, organized the debate, agreed.

“The level of debate was respectful,” he said. “They each had something to say to the parents and students.”

Junior Jason O’Brien said, “I thought it was a very nice debate. It was nice to see that there weren’t more personal attacks.”

Several groups had tables set up at the entrance of the debate. Both the College Republicans and College Democrats were in attendance. “We’re trying to show everyone the College Republicans have a large presence on campus,” Kristene Henkelman, vice president of the College Republicans, said.

Eric Biersmith, president of the College Democrats, added, “It’s a great opportunity for students to come out and listen and get involved.”

Two representatives from the State Department’s “Ready, Set, Vote” campaign were handing out literature explaining voting procedures.

Bennett was chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities under President Reagan. He later became Secretary of Education under Reagan. He served as drug czar under the elder President Bush. He has written several books, including “The Book of Virtues” and “Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.”

Dean is a medical doctor who served as the governor of Vermont from 1991-2003 before exploding onto the scene as a Democratic presidential nominee hopeful. His contribution to the presidential campaign was successful in mobilizing traditionally apathetic voters, especially by his revolutionary use of the Internet.