By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Two polarizing political moguls descended on Boulder last Monday night for a debate that was mostly friendly until a last minute verbal scuffle defined the show.
Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s contentious chief of staff until 2007 and current contributor to Fox News and columnist for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, represented the side of conservatism. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee that oversaw the Democrats’ rise to power from 2004 to 2008 and a presidential hopeful himself six years ago, was paired opposite him on the political spectrum. The two debated current events at the University of Colorado. A sold out audience of more than 2,000 students and guests filled Mackey Auditorium and 200 more watched the debate from an overflow room.
The 90-minute forum consisted of numerous light-hearted personal jabs between Rove and Dean as they attacked and defended Republicans and Democrats. They even agreed with one another on several occasions.
The respectful tone dissolved into a contemptuous final ten minutes after an audience member asked why the Bush Administration hasn’t been held accountable for leading the nation into the “senseless” war in Iraq.
While Dean said he believed Bush acted correctly by intervening in Iraq, he suggested that former Vice President Dick Cheney purposefully withheld information from former President Bush regarding weapons of mass destruction.
Dean’s comment caused scattered gasps from the audience followed by a billowing applause.
Rove’s voice rose to a shout after Dean’s politically charged comments. He pointed at Dean, repeatedly shouting, “You’re better than that.” Rove forged through a deafening chorus of cheers and jeers from an audience that a CU police officer labeled as “mouthy.”
“What about 110 Democrats who voted for the war resolution?” asked Rove. “If it’s equal justice, if we’re seeking to seek a criminal trial of President Bush, when are we going to indict every one of these individuals?”
Rove then cited several sources, including a report by U.N. weapons inspectors and FBI interrogations performed on Saddam Hussein, which he said support the intelligence the Bush administration used before invading Iraq.
“We did the right thing based on the intelligence we had at the time,” Rove said — ending the allotted time for the debate.
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, who observed the debate, called Dean’s comment the low point in an otherwise engaging show.
“I thought that was a cheap shot,” Wadhams said. “It’s not one that Howard Dean can back up with any credibility and I think it was the low point of the debate. I think that Howard Dean is better than that and I think that Rove, appropriately, came back very strong and very direct in his response.”
Audience members expecting a pointed debate from the polar opposite political strategists said they were pleased with the climactic ending.
“I just wanted some real anger,” said Meg Hardy, 28. “In a neutral sort of way I was happy to see someone riled up.”
Hardy agreed with her friend and CU graduate student, Porter Bourie, 27, that the rest of the debate was predictable “in the sense that you knew how they were going to answer by party lines.”
Andres Pedraza, 24, a graduate student at Miami University said he expected more from the evening.
“It lacked depth,” Pedraza said. “I think I was expecting more about the future of the party and Colorado and which direction both guys would take the nation.”
Rove and Dean covered foreign policy, national security and the recent Citizens v. United Supreme Court decision about campaign finance, but mostly debated health care policy and current legislation. Both used a majority of time criticizing congress’s ability to actually reform health care.
“All I believe, and progressive democrats believe, is that we ought to have the choice as the American people — let us have enough choices so we can reform health care,” Dean said, in an endorsement for the public option. “People like the private sector health care, let them stay in it. But give me a choice of being in something like Medicare. Give people a choice of being in a different kind of system so we don’t get ripped off by 39 percent increases in health care when we can’t afford it.”
Dean, a physician, said he quit supporting the congressional health care bills when “special interests took it away from us.”
Rove called the senate health bill “political gimmickry” and fiscally unfeasible.
“Neither the CBO nor the OMB says that either one of these bills will bend the health care curb bill down. Half the people who get coverage under this senate bill, they’ll get it from private insurance. The new people that get coverage, they get it by being dumped into Medicaid, which gets hoisted off on your Colorado state budget,” Rove said.
Even after taking questions on other subjects, both speakers repeatedly turned back to health care.
They suggested making health care portable so workers can keep their same insurance from job to job. Taking portability a step further, Rove advocated for cross-state health insurance, similar to auto insurance.
Commonalities between the two were also heard regarding foreign policy. Dean said that additional sanctions from the U.S. on Iran would create problems in Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime. And regarding North Korea and Iran, Rove said additional pressure from China and Russia is the only way to gain leverage in stopping those nuclear programs.
“With all the experience between them, we were just talking, and we think these two men would probably solve some of these issues,” said Richard Dehncke, 61, who attended the debate. Dehncke, a Democrat, and friend David Byrne, 54, a Republican, said the constant re-election cycle, prevents wise leaders, such as Rove and Dean, from initiating positive change.
The debate was moderated by CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano. Both speakers were each allotted a 10-minute opening statement, then answered previously submitted audience questions and finished with a 20-minute live Q&A session.
Rove took the stage seconds before Dean, who was welcomed with an audibly louder applause. Rove immediately acknowledged his disadvantage in the predominately liberal Boulder.
“Alright, so Howard won the opening. He said he’d have more applause and I told him, ‘why not, it’s Boulder after all,’” Rove said, one of the many times his sense of humor incited widespread laughter.
Dressed in a light grey business coat, red tie and white button up shirt, Rove talked for 11 minutes in his opening address about the letdowns of President Obama’s first year in office. He cited the sky rocketing deficit and national debt as reasons against more Obama-sponsored public programs like the federal stimulus bill.
“As of this morning two-thirds of the (stimulus) money is still unspent. Check it yourself at Recovery.org,” he said. “In fact, we’ll spend more money stimulating the economy from the 2009 Stimulus Bill between 2011 and 2019 than we spent last year when we were supposed to be stimulating the economy.”
Rove, credited as the mastermind behind both Bush presidential victories, predicted Republicans are poised to gain nine to 12 U.S. senate seats after this year’s November elections.
Dean, sporting a dark grey jacket and cream yellow tie on a sky blue button up shirt, used more than eight minutes in his opening remarks to encourage people to stand with President Obama, even if they don’t support initiatives like the congressional health care bills.
“The day Barack Obama took office, the Bush administration left him a $1.3 trillion deficit and an $8 trillion deficit projected for the next decade,” he said. “You can’t reasonably expect Barack Obama to clean up eight years of foreign and domestic mess.”
Dean is credited with regenerating the Democratic Party as its chairman with his 50 state strategy summarized by the motto he coined, “Election by election, state by state, precinct by precinct, door by door, vote by vote… we’re going to lift our party up and take this country back for the people who built it.”
At times Rove and Dean resembled a comedy team as opposed to political rivals. In a light-hearted moment during the Q&A session, Dean interrupted a crack from Rove about Democrats to lambast Rove’s favorite college football team, the Texas Longhorns, for its national championship loss against Alabama last month.
“I haven’t said anything about your disgraceful performance in Texas on Jan. 8,” Dean said.
Rove quipped back, “Howard is just sorry they don’t even have a football team in Vermont. They play kickball.”
CU is one of several places that the two have visited on a loosely scheduled traveling tour. Last fall they visited DePauw University and Penn State, and on Wednesday they took their show to Portland, Ore. The event at CU was organized by the student-operated Distinguished Speakers Board, which has netted other high-caliber speakers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former UN chief Kofi Annan, presidential contender and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and American blues guitarist and songwriter B.B. King. The board paid $28,000 each to Rove and Dean for the event.
Onsite CU police said no arrests were made at Mackey Monday. Barricades to separate protesters went unused as no one came to protest the appearances by Rove or Dean.
On Monday afternoon, Rove visited with CU students and took questions for over an hour with a senior honors political science class. Event organizer Juliet Kroll said Dean also met with students. She added that both Dean and Rove gave CU high marks as a host venue.
“I think they have a great road show,” Wadhams said.