Gather a mixed crowd of Georgia students humming on cheap caffeine and swallowing greasy pizza. Add political activism to the mix. Now throw in the ongoing partisan conflict, on campus and off. Mix well, and you have the makings of a Great Debate. Hosted by the Athens Political Union, the UGA College Republicans and UGA Young Democrats sparred yesterday evening over a plethora of issues, ranging from the Affordable Care Act to American foreign policy in Syria.
The style was conventional. A question was posed to one side, which was given three minutes to answer. Representatives from the other party rebutted the answer for two minutes, after which a counter-rebuttal from the original party was offered.
The initial topic was education. The Young Democrats talked about Georgia’s poor educational system and the possible repercussions of failing to fix it. To buttress their argument, they used an (I can only think) exaggerated statistic on third grade test scores and their relationship to the future prison population.
The College Republicans agreed that the state’s educational system needs reform, but they disagreed on the means of doing so. They supported increased school choice and local and parental control as alternatives to “throwing money at the problem.”
Moving on to the Common Core curriculum, the Republicans opened by stating that national standardization doesn’t serve the best interests of individual states, Georgia included. They asserted that successful education reform of this complexity shouldn’t come from “guinea pig programs” with no precedent in the nation’s history. The Democrats countered with an emphasis on Pre-K funding and the benefits of having a common set of standards for schools.
The debate then turned to immigration reform. As before, the College Republicans began by establishing that both parties believe the current system is deficient, but they have different means of repairing it. For the Republicans, reform includes truly securing the border, streamlining the system for legal immigration and limiting amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. The Young Democrats talked about their consistent support of the DREAM Act — designed to provide legal pathways for currently illegal immigrants —, the economic harm of mass deportation of immigrants (especially in Georgia’s agricultural sector) and the Senate bill’s increase in the number of visas. What followed was a curious back-and-forth on providing for immigrants, especially with healthcare. When the Young Democrats insinuated their opponents wished illegal immigrants die in the streets, a Republican debater answered sheepishly that, “We definitely don’t want immigrants dying in the streets.” A point of consensus.
Speeding along in the debate, both parties addressed the government shutdown and health care reform.
The Democrats made it clear that the shutdown wasn’t worth it to “prove a point about a law [Republicans] knew they couldn’t repeal.” Instead, they offered a few solutions to solving the debt crisis, such as smarter cuts in the budget and “revenue enhancements,” or tax hikes. The Republicans fell back to the traditional free market stance, stating that in the private sector, if your job is deemed “nonessential” (as 15 percent of government jobs were), you become unemployed. As only 15 percent of federal workers were furloughed during the shutdown, Republicans claimed the shutdown was more trivial than it was made out to be.
Regarding Obamacare, one of the Republicans said “ [his] biggest issue with the Affordable care Act is that it’s not affordable” because, while health care costs have fallen in New York state, they have risen most everywhere else. He added that the law is “confusing and convoluted.” Shifting back to the shutdown, the Democrats alleged that “our Georgia’s” views aren’t being represented because the state has elected “extremists.” Focusing on the Tea Party, they claimed that its growing presence indicated where the Republican Party is going, and that as a result of Republican dominance in the state unfair gerrymandered districts produced a generally poor political climate.
Finally, the debate arrived at the foreign policy mire of Syria. This was the haziest part of the debate, and both sides’ arguments lacked the heft they did before. The College Republicans blamed the Obama administration for the catastrophic failure of the U.S. in handling the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile. By setting a red line and not enforcing it when crossed, America’s image as an international power willing to act prudently and forcefully was damaged. In addition, by making our intentions clear to the world, including Assad’s autocracy, we lost the “element of surprise” so crucial to contemporary military operations.
The Young Democrats defended Obama’s actions, saying that the U.S. scared Syria into surrendering its chemical weapons. The Democrats expressed willingness to work with the United Nations to solve the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and claimed the United States should involve itself in the country short of military action (interesting, especially as they had previously touted Obama’s draw-downs elsewhere in the region).
After the central debate topics were addressed, the moderators took questions from the audience. In this course, the Democrats supported Georgia’s acceptance of federal Medicare as a solution to general mental health care deficiencies, while the Republicans cited the Georgia State Constitution’s balanced budget amendment as a reason not to hastily and irresponsibly spend where we cannot afford to do so. One particularly aggressive audience member asked an incendiary question to the College Republicans about how much death and suffering it would take for them to change their minds away from Syrian non-intervention. Again citing the high cost and the lack of a clear security interest, the Republicans fielded the question very professionally.
In conclusion, it is hard for me to objectively declare a winner. However, facing the facts and flow of the debate, I’d give the edge to the College Republicans, who relied more on logos arguments rather than the Democrats’ pathos, and who were better able to source their claims. However, all debaters acted in the serious, couth and cordial manner befitting a UGA student. The Great Debate lived up to its name.
—Brennan Mancil is a freshman studying political science and international affairs
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