Republican strategist Karl Rove and President Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, faced off over which political party is best prepared to lead the country into the future during a debate Tuesday at Stanford.
Moderated by Rob Reich, a professor of political science and ethics at Stanford (not to be confused with Robert Reich, the Clinton administration labor secretary), the two partisan leaders delved into topics ranging from immigration reform to health care.
Rove, a frequent Fox News commentator and head of the conservative American Crossroads Super PAC, pegged the economy, jobs, the deficit, and what he calls entitlement programs as the biggest challenges facing the next party to take the White House. Gibbs focused on the middle class, saying that creating economic “security that lasts” will be essential to the country’s stability.
Reich, who is noted for his use of the Socratic method, turned the tables on the debaters and asked what they thought the leader of the other party was doing well. Rove said Obama had started in the right direction by attempting to reign in financial institutions and reduce the country’s carbon footprint, but would not say Obama is doing anything correctly now when pressed by Reich.
Gibbs quipped that Mitt Romney’s hair and chin were his best assets as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and suggested that Romney would emphasize a background in business. When pressed by Reich as to what he thought Romney was doing right, Gibbs praised Romney’s commitment to his family and to charity.
The exchange, which came at the beginning of the debate, proved indicative of the hour-and-a-half-long talk.
“The first question and first answer were emblematic of the fact that as politicians they were unable to step away from their positions as mouthpieces for their parties,” said audience member Emily Lamont, who graduated from Harvard in 2009 and was visiting her sister, Lindsay, a Stanford junior in the American studies program.
The exchange got heated when immigration came up, with Rove accusing Obama of “flaking” on immigration reform as a junior Illinois senator and Gibbs defending his boss. Gibbs and Rove also differed in their stance on the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who come to the country as children and go on to attend college or serve in the military.
Rove opposed the idea of a federal DREAM Act, but said it was something to be taken up at the state level. Gibbs rejected that idea as a chaotic “patchwork over the whole country.”
The pair also clashed over whether there should be more transparency regarding where campaign funding comes from.
“No candidate will opt into the federal finance system. They’re not going to win that way,” Gibbs said, before lauding the fact that Obama has raised most of his campaign contributions in small amounts, and voicing his support for disclosure of donors’ names and occupations.
Rove railed against what he called a double standard on Republicans, saying that no Democrat was angry when the NAACP used $10 million from an anonymous donor to criticize former president George W. Bush. He also said that revealing donors might lead to donor intimidation.
A moment of agreement came toward the end of the debate, however, when Reich read a question written by an Army sergeant, who the professor said had been awarded a Purple Heart. The young man, now a Stanford student, asked about the breakdown in the civilian-military relationship.
Both Rove and Gibbs thanked him for his service (he did not appear to be in the audience after Rove asked him to stand), but said they did not agree that there has been such a breakdown.
Rove also took the opportunity to voice his support for the recent decision to reopen Stanford to the ROTC.
Second-year electrical engineering Stanford student Steven Ingram said he came away from the debate with a greater understanding of the challenges facing the country this election season, and said it gave him a chance to get to know the players better.
“I had heard Gibbs more, as press secretary,” he said. “I didn’t know much about Rove other than what you see on cable television, which is the worst place to get an understanding of their views. It was good.”