The 2012 presidential debate season started early on Ohio State’s campus Tuesday when political heavyweights Karl Rove and James Carville debated in a crowded Mershon Auditorium. Moderated by Herb Asher, an OSU political science professor and senior vice president for government affairs, the debate lasted more than an hour and culminated with questions from the audience on Twitter.
The two men were surprisingly friendly for political masterminds who served as chief campaign strategists for rival political dynasties. Rove, as President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff, presented the Republican view of the upcoming face-off between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, while Carville, former presidential campaign manager for Bill Clinton, offered the Democratic perspective.
If Carville could be best described as your hokey uncle, Rove would most likely depict your arrogant next-door neighbor. He thundered from the stage like an angry protestor, while his opponent responded with the brief deflections typical of a candidate running ahead in the polls, seemingly personifying the two candidates they were representing.
Despite the serious tone of questions, the audience was consistently laughing at an ever-pacing Carville, who supplemented his answers with economic growth figures, inconveniently charted on difficult-to-see 8 x 11 sheets of paper. Carville disappeared from view multiple times during his stage wandering, but always reappeared to applause and laughter.
As a former registered Republican, and newly registered Democrat, I had high hopes to enter the debate relatively free of political bias. Those hopes were dashed as soon as Carville started to make progress on a point about job creation under Obama, and I found myself rooting for him a little too vocally at some points. He stayed close to Democratic talking points on the economy, saying that “the rich should pay more.” Rove persisted in hammering Obama on not fixing the economy and made a direct appeal to students when he claimed that “many of them will be living back at home.”
Carville was clearly prepared for Rove’s rebuttals on most economic policy issues, possibly a side effect of being married to Republican consultant Mary Matalin, another alumna of the Bush presidency. He presented the Democratic perspective and a defense of Obama initiatives in a rambling, but effective way.
The one topic on which both men agreed was related to the political polarization that is becoming a characteristic of this era in politics. Gerrymandering and the manipulation of congressional districts was cited by Rove and Carville as playing a role in the further breakdown of political compromise. Carville equally criticized modern news consumers, saying one of his most memorable quotes of the night, that “too many people use news for validation, not illumination.”
Asher used the presence of two political geniuses to ask them to give advice to those in the crowd with political aspirations. Carville served to be equally inspirational as he was quirky, ending with a single statement of wisdom: “If that’s where your heart takes you, please follow it.”
Carville truly stoked the fires of liberal pride Tuesday night, repeatedly saying, “I’m proud that I’m a Democrat.” His political backbone and commitment to his principles came off as more genuine and likable than Rove’s conservative preaching. Thank you for firing us up James Carville, because I am proud to be a Democrat, too.