I have covered several Jewish debates about the 2008 election, but always as a blogger and audience member. Several days ago, I had the pleasure of being a debate participant.
This will not be a transcription. For one thing, I cannot transcribe myself while I am talking. I cannot transcribe my opponent, preferring to actually pay attention. This is more about the experience.
The idea of being a debate participant came from watching my friend Larry Greenfield participate in several forums with people ranging from democratic members of Congress to others on the left.
Simply put, Larry cannot be everywhere, and he was supportive of my efforts to help make the case for John McCain.
The toughest part was finding an opponent.
Although a majority of the Jewish community leans to the left, most people are not qualified to engage in an actual formal debate.
I asked my friends to help me find an opponent. I wanted three criteria. First of all, the person had to be politically liberal and a supporter of Barack Obama. Otherwise it would not be much of a debate. Secondly, they had to be intelligent. Thirdly, they had to be a nice person.
This third one might seem irrelevant, but I wanted this to be a friendly and enjoyable experience. The entire purpose of the evening was to show people that individuals can have sharp disagreements, yet still like each other.
A friend of mine referred me to an individual named Randy Steinberg. Randy is a Democratic Strategist who runs his own firm, SJA Strategies.
We spoke on the telephone, and there was immediate rapport. Randy was exactly what I was looking for…a well informed, staunch partisan democrat, who is also very likable. Plus, he likes football. I can break bread with virtually anybody that likes football.
We both agreed that we had no patience for gutter politics. He finds comparisons of President Bush to Hitler abhorrent, and I am revolted by insinuations that Obama is a secret Muslim, or that his middle name should be a line of attack.
Randy and I both have significant public speaking experience, and feel comfortable in public settings. However, neither one of us had done a formal debate before. It is one thing to observe. It is another to actually do it.
The next issue was finding venues. Randy and I are both Jewish, and we wanted to debate in front of Jewish institutions, particularly ones that had a healthy amount of young people. One of the institutions that expressed interest was USC Chabad. Rabbi Dov Wagner was great.
The conditions set forth by USC Chabad were minimal and completely reasonable. The event had to be bipartisan, and it had to deal with Jewish issues. This made complete sense. A healthy portion of the debate was dedicated to discussing Israel and other Jewish issues.
We wanted to give the event some heft, which meant a well respected moderator. The Jewish Journal is well known in the Jewish community, particularly in Los Angeles. Jewish Journal writer Brad Greenberg moderated the debate. Brad is a blogger as well. His blog is “The God Blog.”
With all the pieces in place, the next step that candidates usually do is have the “debate about the debate.” This is where every little detail gets haggled about.
Thankfully, Randy and I were not interested in arguing about nonsense. We were not running for office, and whether the opening statements would be 3 minutes or 5 minutes would not change the world. Most of the email correspondence between us was along the lines of “what do you think about this?”
The only area of disagreement, and it was mild at that, was about videotaping the session. I wanted to, but Randy felt that since it was our first debate, we should see how it goes first. I respected his position. After the debate, we both seemed comfortable with the idea of videotaping future debates. At worst it will be a You-Tube enjoyment, and at best a resume builder.
The debate itself was a very enjoyable experience. I am not a fan of podiums, so I was glad when the structure was for us to be seated at the table. It was adults having a conversation.
While a transcription was not possible, I remember some of the things I said. I remember much more of what I said than what Randy said, but that is only because I have said the same things to people for years.
Randy and I were both very good about time. The moderator did not have to chastise us. One moment occurred when I asked the moderator for an extra 15-30 seconds to rebut something Randy had said. The moderator explained that he would then have to give it to Randy as well. I replied, “Well then I don’t need it.” I was not afraid of a rebuttal. I just did not want to open up a pandoras box regarding constantly going over time limits. Randy, Brad, and I all wanted as much time as possible for audience questions.
As for the questions, they were substantive.
Because I had criticized Obama’s tax cuts as wealth redistribution and socialism, somebody asked me if I felt that we should be should abolish welfare. I stated that we absolutely should not do so. We must give hope to those at the bottom. They need to have hope that they can have upward mobility. I then distinguished between welfare and helping the poor with wealth redistribution, which just punishes the rich, and helps nobody. Nevertheless, the question was designed to try and imply that conservatism and heartlessness were identical. I did not take the bait.
One questioner asked me what I thought of the notion that Obama was a Muslim, or the invocation of his middle name Hussein. I emphatically stated that such tactics disgusted me. At the beginning of the debate I pointed out that both men were good, decent men, good husbands, good fathers, and men who loved America. I reinforced that Obama is a Christian and an American, and that the debate should be about issues, not slander. I also pointed out that ideological bigotry is coming mainly from the left. Conservatives have their cars keyed, lawn signs stolen, and other acts of violence. One leftist ran over Katherine Harris with his car after the 2000 election.
I pointed out that it is trendy to despise conservatives simply because they exist, whether it be Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Newt Gingrich, or Sarah Palin.
The crowd laughed when I mentioned BHMO, Barack Hannah Montana Obama.
Another moment of levity occurred when Randy rhetorically asked “What should we do, just go in and attack Iran and Syria?”
Because we were not interrupting each other, I could not directly answer him. So I just nodded my head up and down and smiled broadly, to much amusement.
Randy is much more polished than me. He is calmer, and I am more excitable. More than once Brad had to steer me in the right direction. Randy was more focused and disciplined. I was more emotional.
One exchange where I felt I was successful was when Randy brought up Bill Ayers and Robert Malley. While I did mention Pastor Wright and some other associations in the news, I did not mention Ayers or Malley. That allow me to say to the audience that, “Obama has so many questionable associations that there is not enough time to mention them all. The fact that Randy brings up to defend Ayers and Malley when I never mentioned them shows the depth of Obama’s problems on this issue.”
While Randy did not clean my clock, he made no mistakes. For a man who has never debated before, he is a well oiled machine. The democratic party is lucky to have him. He got in one particularly good line. I mentioned that, “in 22 democratic debates, there was no mention of Islamofacism or Islamic Fundamentalism.” He coolly responded that, “in 3 general election debates, John McCain did not mention the economy.”
After the debate, we both shook hands, and chatted with each other and the audience.
One of the reasons this debate worked well is because while there were plenty of political differences, there was harmony among everybody putting the success of the event over everything else. Brad, Randy, Rabbi Dov, and I all let the audience know that the purpose of this was to educate and have fun. The audience complied by being polite, and asking intelligent questions. Questions were submitted in writing to prevent filibusters.
The audience clapped loudly after we were done, and noticed that a debate could be civil, with people breaking bread afterwards. In fact, the debate occurred just after the Jewish Holiday of Sukkos. A ritual during Sukkos is to smoke something similar to a peace pipe, known as a Hookah. So after the debate there was “Hookah in the Sukkah.” People debated, and then shared a peace pipe. There was actually a drum circle. I could not make this up if I tried.
Randy and I talked about getting together after the election, and doing a post election analysis. We will not only look at the election itself, but where both parties go from here.
The best part of my debate with Randy was that two nice guys got to know each other. This will not be our last debate. Regardless of the actual election, we have both made a new friend.
That is something excellent, which both of us would agree about.