A water engineer and a corporate strategist squared off Thursday night with a software specialist and an economic developer at the Common Grounds coffeehouse in a different kind of presidential debate than America has seen on television. No spin, no canned lines, just straight political talk from both sides of the aisle aimed only at helping voters better understand the arguments behind the Bush and Kerry campaigns.
The Oct. 21 event was hosted by the DC International Connection, a non-partisan group. The members of the Democratic and Republican debate teams who participated were neither elected officials nor party representatives, just local political enthusiasts — ordinary people doing their part to educate the crowd of more than 50 attendees.
AT THE FOREFRONT of the debate was foreign policy and the war in Iraq.
“What the Bush administration has done with the war on terrorism is first to admit that it is worldwide, a global problem,” said Peter Barnett, an economic consultant speaking for the Republicans.
Barnett stressed the involvement of the Bush administration’s “coalition of the willing” in the fight against terrorism, a coalition comprised of several countries with largely Muslim populations. In the 1990’s, he pointed out, more than 20,000 Algerian Muslims died in terrorist attacks launched by Al Quaeda and other Islamic Fundamentalist groups.
“You could say that the network of Al Quaeda has been more anti-Muslim than it has anti-American if you look at the total number of casualties around the world,” he said. “The Bush approach has been to engage the world, to say that the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq is just as important to every country out there as it has been to the United States.”
Countering this claim was Peter Macy, a water engineer and a Democrat.
“We heard from our colleagues that Bush’s war on terrorism is a worldwide effort,” he said. “This is a no spin zone here. That is simply not the truth. Bush has alienated our allies. He has marginalized the United Nations. He has alienated us from the international community.”
Macy had come prepared with stacks of newspaper and magazine articles, books and government reports.
According to Macy, many conservatives disagree with the Bush approach to fighting terrorism.
“We have a colonialist attitude right now and we’re going to pay for it,” he said, paraphrasing from a worn copy of Pat Buchanan’s "Where the Right Went Wrong."
He added, “Iraq is a total distraction from the war on terror.”
But the Bush Administration’s failure to gain international support for the war, according to Republican Micah Rowland, a software engineer and a Republican, can be chalked up to the fact many of America’s traditional allies, nations such as France and Germany, had profited from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“No wonder sanctions didn’t work and no wonder why we couldn’t get the coalition that we normally get,” he said. “In spite of that, President Bush’s leadership has banded together a group of committed coalition partners to defeat terrorism abroad before it comes to our homes again, not just for our sake but for sake of all other countries.”
But Macy was unfazed, producing a copy of a report issued by the Pentagon Defense Science Board. He read aloud.
“A strong correlation exists between U.S. involvement in international operations and increased terror attacks against the United States,” he said. Setting the pages on the table, he added “This militaristic adventure that we are undergoing in Iraq and other parts of the world is actually making us less safe.”
MACY’S DEMOCRATIC TEAMMATE Nazir Ahmad, a corporate strategist, said Bush’s inability to gain support for the war is symptomatic of his other foreign policy decisions. During his first 100 days in office, Ahmad said, Bush withdrew from five international treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the anti-landmine pact and the ban on testing biological weapons.
“One of the first things John Kerry will do is to establish the United States as part of solving the world’s problems, not hiding and isolating itself from them,” Ahmad said.
Kerry is also committed, he added, to alleviating poverty around the world by reforming international trade and to furthering international AIDS research and prevention. On the cause of peace in the Middle East, he admitted neither candidate is particularly “forward thinking,” but he said, “I would still count on the party of Jimmy Carter who actually bartered the first peace treaty between an Arab country and Israel and of Bill Clinton, who was the close to doing the same.”
ON THE DOMESTIC FRONT, the two sides explained the Bush and Kerry positions on health care.
“Americans have some of the best health care in the world and they have that because they have a choice,” Barnett said. “From the Democrats side, they have wanted to raise taxes and then create government funded programs. The Bush approach has been to give tax credits so that people can use their own money to choose for themselves which type of plans they want and which provider to visit.”
Barnett also pointed to the administration’s urban and rural health initiatives that have created many new clinics throughout the nation.
Ahmad responded, “When we talk about Americans having a choice, we have to recognize that only some Americans have a choice and, in fact, 5 million Americans have no kind of choice in terms of not having any kind of health care at all.”
Kerry’s answer, he said, is “very simple, that there are aspects of the health care system where pooling care actually makes sense.”
Bush’s health care reforms, he added, have favored drug companies over consumers, resulting in $144 billion dollars in profits for pharmaceutical corporations.
“Kerry’s plan is that the most vulnerable of us need to have protection,” he added, referring to the campaign’s idea of providing government funded health care to seniors and children under 19 years of age.
TURNING TO ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY, the Republicans seized the opportunity to pump up Bush’s much criticized ecological record. Rowland said anyone who thinks Bush’s decisions are hurting the environment are “simply missing the facts.” He pointed out Bush is the first president to raise fuel efficiency for cars and non-road equipment like tractors and bulldozers. On the President’s refusal to engage in the Kyoto environmental protocols, an international treaty, he said, “President Bush’s plan involves not getting ourselves tied down by standards set by other countries who are working with yesterday’s technology.”
Instead, Rowland said Bush wants to encourage industry and science to develop new technologies that will solve America’s ecological problems, technologies like the hydro-electric car. In republican estimates, he said, the Kyoto protocols had cost America more than 6.9 million jobs and $160 Billion.
Macy once again turned to his stockpile of news clips. Pulling one from "The Economist," he read one statement from the League of Conservation Voters.
“President Bush has one of the worst environmental records in our nation’s history,” he said. According to the article in his hand, Bush administration officials now serving at the Environmental Protection Agency are former industrial lobbyists.
“Many of them are the very lobbyists who have fought the laws that they are now being asked to enforce,” he read. “This sounds a lot like leading the fox into the hen house.”
The EPA’s enforcement of pollution laws and other federal environmental policies, the article went on to say, has dropped more than 75 percent since Bush took office. Macy added that Bush fought to prevent a rise in national fuel efficiency standards for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.
JUST WHO CAME OUT on top depended on which Arlingtonian was asked. Most were reluctant to say which side they support, but the debate did spark some talk about the nature of the current political discourse in the election.
“It was plainer talk on the issues than you might get in a more polished debate,” Bill Frazer said. “You kind of got a third-party view in a way but this did not change my mind of who I am voting for.”
Terry Oldham was a bit more forthcoming.
“They knew things I hadn’t heard before,” he said. “It made me lean more towards the Bush side I think. I wanted to hear more about what Kerry said and I just didn't get that. I thought the Bush side did a much better job of espousing what the President has to say.”
And for some, the decision in this year’s election was made up a long time ago.
“I’m always looking for new information but this hasn’t changed my mind,” said Steve Milliner. “My mind was made up way before these two candidates were on the table. I’m a Bush supporter and I’ll still be voting Republican.”
The debate was the last event to be held at Common Grounds. It closed Monday and reopens Wednesday as Murky Coffee, a new branch of an up and coming coffee business based in D.C.’s Eastern Market.