The Pomona Student Union’s annual Great Debate pitted conservative radio talk show host and former Reagan administration adviser Hugh Hewitt against liberal columnist Eric Alterman of The Nation Wednesday. The heated debate covered several of the issues expected to play a major role in the upcoming presidential election, including access to contraception, the economy and partisanship during President Barack Obama’s first term.
The debate was moderated by Frances Kyl PO ’14, who asked the speakers questions submitted beforehand by professors and students.
Hewitt, a professed supporter of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, opened the dialogue by asking how many of those sitting in the audience would vote for Obama if the election were held today. An overwhelming majority of the audience members raised their hands, although a few indicated that they would vote for Romney.
Despite the liberal political bent displayed by the audience, Hewitt argued that the current political climate favors Romney.
“I believe if the election were held today, that would mean a Governor Romney win,” Hewitt said. “Elections are framed by lots of information that condenses into slogans.”
Hewitt said that keywords such as Obamacare and stimulus have helped to communicate the Republican party platform.
Alterman disagreed, arguing that the increasing conservatism of the Right has alienated the voters whose beliefs are more centrist.
“When the Republican party comes out against contraception and a woman’s right to make the most intimate decisions about her own body, people can’t help but notice that,” Alterman said.
The debate remained terse but quiet until Kyl introduced the issues of contraception, the increasing importance of women’s rights in the upcoming election and what has been called the “war on women.”
Hewitt said the idea of a war on women was “preposterous.”
“On the other hand, the war on religious freedom is not preposterous,” he said.
Hewitt argued for religious institutions’ right to choose how their money is spent. He recalled discussing contraception and religious freedom with the students of the Catholic Thomas Aquinas College.
“They are smarter than you,” Hewitt told the audience.
He then said that he meant that Thomas Aquinas students had been exposed to a more classical Western education than Pomona students, but the incident marked a noticeable change in the tone of the debate.
Both Alterman and Hewitt began to sidestep Kyl’s moderation, ignoring time limits and interrupting each other. At several points, audience members engaged the speakers out of turn, arguing with them or asking them to answer Kyl’s questions.
The debate closed with an opportunity for audience members to ask both speakers questions. The students posed questions about sustainable policy making, defense spending and the framing of religious voters by political rhetoric.
After the debate, some students criticized the way Alterman and Hewitt interacted.
“I was disappointed,” Summer Dowd-Lukesh SC ’14 said. “I don’t think that anyone talked about the questions that were asked. I think they just resorted to rhetoric and bickering.”
“I thought it was representative of both parties’ views,” James Gordon PO ’15 said. “It was a good representation of the partisanship, why nothing’s getting done and how the Republican party is continuously moving toward the right and how the Democratic party has to deal with that by moving closer to the right as well.”
Nidhi Gandhi PO ’15 said she was interested in the discussion on political slogans.
“Right now, there’s such an emphasis on cultural politics,” she said. “That’s what a lot of the public’s focus is on right now. They’re not paying attention to the big issues. Sadly enough, the Republicans are so extremist on the cultural issues that it’s really kind of overshadowing everything else.”
Megan Holman PO ’14 questioned the purpose of bringing the staunchly conservative Hewitt to speak before a largely Democratic crowd.
“I understand that it’s important to get a view of both opinions, but I don’t think he changed anyone’s mind at the end,” she said. “At most he brought up a lot of issues that we already knew that the conservative party was focused on. He didn’t give me any insight into Romney’s campaign.”
Holman said that the focus on the changing American political scene was more productive.
“I’m really glad that this happened because a lot of students on campus haven’t thought about our political system as a whole,” she said.
Wednesday night’s event was not the only “Great Debate” on American politics at the Claremont Colleges this week. Representatives from the Claremont College Republicans and the Democrats of the Claremont Colleges debated energy policy, the federal budget deficit and healthcare Tuesday at Claremont McKenna College at an event called the Great Claremont Debate.
Kyle Woods CM ’13, a member of the College Republicans who helped organize the student debate, said that the scheduling of the two debates in the same week was a coincidence. He said that both events reflected “a sense of urgency” about the need to discuss political issues at the 5Cs.