Political heavyweights Newt Gingrich and Robert Gibbs took part in a nearly two hour debate last night in front a sold out Schwab Auditorium. The topic, “The Role of Government in Society,” was a theme laced with issues that outlined the fundamental differences between the political parties.
Hosted by the College Republicans and College Democrats (and partially funded by UPUA), both speakers light-heartedly debated contemporary issues in front of students and community members alike.
Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, spoke for the Republican Party, while Gibbs, the former Press Secretary and Chief Spokesman for President Obama, represented the Democratic Party.
The evening began with an introduction from the College Republican’s President Jordan Harris in which he stressed the importance of political debate, especially for students. “Events like this are absolutely essential to a student’s experience at Penn State,” Harris said.
This thought was later echoed by the moderator for the evening, Dr. Robert Packer, a well-known Penn State professor who teaches courses in international relations.
Packer wasted no time getting right to topics that have been heating up in The Capitol recently. The night began with questions in relating to the government’s role in protecting citizens, which, in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Boston last week, gave both Gibbs and Gingrich a great deal of ground to cover.
Although the speakers agreed on the fundamental principle of protecting American citizens, their views diverged as the topic detailed to the issue of Miranda Rights, prosecution of citizens, and the use of drone strikes.
“I believe we are innocent and proven guilty in almost every instance except those that involve public safety on a grand scale,” Gingrich said. “When you get into terrorism, I think the burden has got to be to go after the person who is a threat to the country.”
“The single most important job of government is to protect its citizens,” Gibbs said, admittedly largely in agreement with Gingrich.
The two politicos varied on the necessity of Miranda rights, however. While Gibbs believes that Miranda rights should be read to terrorists like the Boston massacre bomber, Gingrich believes that such a policy would compromise national security.
“I believe when someone takes up arms against the United States, even if they are an American citizen, it is treason,” said Gingrich, to applause. “I think we need a national security court. They should be tried for treason in a federal court and face immediate death penalty.”
Gibbs, on the other hand, wants to watch the justice system play out.
“We have the greatest justice system in the world and it can dispense with even the likes of a crazed madman,” said Gibbs. “For an American citizen, there should never be any doubt – we should read you your Miranda rights and put you in the justice system.”
Another hot topic was the use of drones to kill American citizens. The two debaters largely agreed in this area, too.
“Drones are essential airborne snipers. Do people have a problem with snipers?” Gingrich asked. “I am for an exemption that allows the commander in chief to end the life of one person to save the lives of thousands.”
“When I became press secretary, I was told never to acknowledge the drone program,” Gibbs said. “When the government denies something that is going on when it’s clearly going on, it makes people not trust the government.”
The long standing issue of Social Security and Medicare and the sustainability of both for future generations as well as budget issues, ballooning national debt, and tax reform also took up a significant portion of the night.
“The degree to which you can sustain your social welfare program is consistent with your economic growth,” Gingrich said. “I’m optimistic that we can obligate most of the social contract, but it is a very different model than just politics as usual.”
“Nobody was to live in a country where we have to pick children or seniors,” Gibbs responded. “Unlike wine, social security doesn’t get better with time.”
When the floor opened up for audience questions, gun control took up the most time. This was one area where, quite predictably, the two men significantly disagreed.
“I don’t think it’s the gun culture in this country that’s the problem,” Gibbs said. “It’s how we change the debate about how criminals get involved in that gun culture. You should still get pretty pissed off that a criminal doesn’t have to go through a background check to buy a gun somewhere.”
“The founding fathers believed that people should have the right to defend themselves,” Gingrich responded. “A background check wouldn’t have made a difference in the Newtown case…Chicago has great gun laws. It also has the highest murder rate in the United States.”
Although Gingrich and Gibbs disagreed, as expected, on a vast majority of the issues covered, each speaker was able to find common ground with his opponent on key points throughout the night. These similarities were so much so, in fact, that during the audience’s open question portion of the event, it was sarcastically suggested the two speakers run on the same ticket during the next presidential election.
“Test your assumptions, listen to the other side. Walk through life always testing your assumptions and learning something everyday,” Gibbs concluded.
It’s not entirely clear who won the debate, in fact, I don’t think there was a winner at all. The winners of the night were all the students that took time out of their schedule to come out and listen to two distinguished politicians engage in an important dialogue.