DebateFest: A lawn party for the rest of us

It was never in the cards that more than a handful of DU students or grassroots Colorado Democrats would wangle tickets to Wednesday’s Presidential Debate. Simply accommodating the media ate up nearly half the available seats. Once the organizers squeezed in high roller contributors, national party poobahs, University administrators and elected officials, rumor has it that the Colorado Democratic and Republican parties received no more than a few dozen passes. A campus lottery was held to distribute student tickets, with a rock and roll viewing party offered as a consolation prize for the unlucky.

At 5:00 p.m. it was still close to 80 degrees and the line at the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck wound back half a block. The weather forecast called for a cold front and plummeting temperatures, but you could tell most of the student body at the University of Denver is still adapting to Rocky Mountain weather. Spaghetti-strap blouses, T-shirts, shorts and sandals were the uniform of the day. Perhaps the most bizarre outfit was a Denver Water Board jogger wearing a toilet costume followed by a sign bearer with the message, “Running Toilets Waste Water.” An hour later, swirling winds, dry lightning and the threat of a downpour sent most of the audience fleeing to dorm rooms for fleece vests, blankets, hats and gloves. Meanwhile, the musicians soldiered on despite alarming gusts that caused their stage to shudder and groan.

Activists wearing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney costumes display a campaign finance reform message outside the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 at the University of Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Chris Matthews held forth at the MSNBC booth, surrounded by a mob that was cued to cheer by a youthful stage director. Hay bales were scattered on the green to provide seating. Young families shared picnic dinners. Off to the side, the University bookstore enjoyed land office sales in commemorative T-shirts, while a series of tents sheltered advocacy groups for just about every fringe political cause you could imagine. It was possible to load up on bumper stickers like, I HAVE STUDENT DEBT AND I VOTE, as well as campaign buttons for choice, marijuana, bicycling and organic produce. Although the crowd leaned to Obama, Romney partisans were well represented.

By 7:00 p.m., many students were straggling back to the lawn with sleeping bags, ski jackets and medicinal smoking herbs. Although the crowd was free to chime in with applause or hisses, unlike those trapped in the debate hall itself who had been amply admonished to remain silent throughout the proceedings, there was little audible response to either candidate. The loudest cheers arose each time the University of Denver was mentioned. The seemingly endless recitation of numbers, dates and percentages imposed a soporific trance over those who bothered to listen. It appeared doubtful that either candidate was successfully persuading anyone to change his or her mind.

Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, shares his snack with Governor John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner at the DebateFest prior to the Obama/Romney showdown.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

As an old high school and college debater, it was evident that Romney was getting the better of the clash — forcing the discussion to go where he wanted. While facts are necessary, they are rarely determinative in a debate. More important is the force of the arguments marshaled by a debater, particularly the rebuttals and ripostes that can undermine an opponent’s credibility. For example, if we really have 23 million Americans unemployed and another hundred thousand entering the workforce each month looking for jobs, how will a plan to add 12 million new jobs over the next four years solve our problem?

DU Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communications Kevin A. Carroll heads out towards the DebateFest at DU’s Carnegie Green.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

A useful primer for debaters is a half-century old text, Statistics don’t lie, but liars can figure! Both debaters carefully shaved their numbers to produce figures that supported interpretations they wished to advance, when the bottom line, of course, is the fact that our economy has sucked badly for a very long time — and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon whoever is elected. This detachment of argument from lived experience chilled enthusiasm. As the night grew colder, the crowd began to slowly drift away in search of personal truths. At the conclusion of the debate, only a few hundred diehards remained. Heads down, they quietly scurried away into the night. Only an endless succession of barbed wire fences protected them against the arctic blasts swirling broken stalks of hay that scoured the University lawn.


Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein greets supporters at the Mercury Cafe following the Obama/Romney debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Artist Brian Olsen has just completed a double portrait of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in full view of the DebateFest.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock greets the DebateFest audience from the main stage.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman
Supporters of Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson gather near a van bearing his portrait in order to drum up interest in his candidacy. Johnson was not allowed to participate in the presidential debate because he had not secured the necessary support in polls.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

See Oct. 5, 2012 print edition for full photo coverage.

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