The dueling messages of the 2012 presidential election arrived in full force Tuesday afternoon in a packed Memorial Auditorium as Republican strategist Karl Rove and Robert Gibbs, former press secretary for President Obama, debated which party is best prepared to lead the United States through challenges ahead.
Fundamentally, we have some huge issues to tackle in this country,” Gibbs said during a moment that broke from the event’s partisan tone. “The only way we’re going to get solutions to really big problems is that we’re going to have to work together, and we’re going to have to compromise.”
The event, co-hosted by Stanford in Government (SIG) and the ASSU Speaker’s Bureau, was moderated by Political Science Professor Robert Reich.
In their opening remarks, Rove and Gibbs largely advanced their party platforms. Rove focused on the United States’ deteriorating financial situation, arguing that the Obama administration has been ineffective in confronting issues from sluggish economic growth to high unemployment.
“We have an entitlement problem,” Rove said. “We’re running out of time, and we’ve wasted the last three years in making no changes…that would keep these great safety nets in place.”
By contrast, Gibbs emphasized issues of economic and social inequality, arguing the election will hinge upon the “values this country was founded upon — that hard work and responsibility pay off.”
When prompted to state the strongest case that could be made by the other party’s presidential nominee, both speakers demurred, stating that the arguments being deployed by the other campaign fail to stand up against accumulated evidence. Gibbs cited Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s claim to offer superior management of the economy, and Rove noted Obama’s desire to continue the work of his first term.
“The argument [for Obama] isn’t credible after we’ve watched the last three years,” Rove said. “I’m not sure how connected he’s been with that path and how willing he is to defend it.”
In assessing electoral strategies for November, Rove and Gibbs concurred that the election will likely be decided by a small margin, with the race potentially coming down to a handful of battleground states.
“This election is going to be even closer [than 2008],” Gibbs said. “We’ve been preparing for this race to be closer than the last one from the very beginning.”
Both speakers emphasized differences in the electoral map this election cycle due to demographic shifts and post-census redistribution of electoral votes. The pair noted a gain of voters in strongly conservative states while others, such as Virginia, have drifted to the left.
“That doesn’t mean that the past is a guarantee of future performance,” Rove added, cautioning against reliance on demographic shifts. “Change is always there.”
The debate became more heated when Reich asked about the failure of both parties to reach out to Hispanic voters, despite the growing and increasingly critical Latino swing vote.
Rove noted that the failure to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform can be assigned to both parties, but he highlighted a lack of effort on the subject by Obama, who promised to undertake serious reform both as a candidate and as president.
“We’re going to need to do this as a country,” Rove said. “The only way to do it is to get someone who is in their heart committed to making America a welcoming and inclusive country.”
“This president had his chance,” Rove added, “and he blew it.”
Rove received significant audience applause when he advocated for legislation similar to the DREAM Act to be undertaken at a state level, stating, “We need to find a way to resolve this in a fair way that respects our laws and acts in our interests.”
Gibbs argued for further bipartisan efforts, asserting that an increasingly conservative Republican Party has complicated attempts to accomplish reform.
“We have a fundamental problem in that the people that stood with George W. Bush in trying to fix this broken system…aren’t there anymore,” Gibbs said. “It’s an issue that’s tough on both parties, and people are going to have to get out of their party mindset.”
“You need both parties to do it,” Rove said, “but that requires presidential leadership.”
Addressing the increasingly hostile and partisan atmosphere in Washington, Rove and Gibbs in turn critiqued the other party for excessive partisanship and unwillingness to make tough political choices, calling for less emotionally charged rhetoric amongst legislators.
“We have to have a more honest and reasonable and rational debate than simply apply a label to dismiss someone else’s concerns,” Rove said.
Noting the increased influence of corporate entities, Gibbs argued that the previously established model of opt-in public financing is desperately obsolete and in need of reform. Obama, despite previous assertions, rejected more than $84 million of public financing in 2008 in order to avoid spending limits.
“This is an issue that — after this election — should be at the forefront of the legislative calendar,” Gibbs said. “We’ve seen the impact of unlimited corporate donations just in deciding the Republican nomination.”
Rove argued that a double standard is emerging regarding super PACs, noting Obama’s recent embrace of a super PAC intended to support his reelection efforts. Rove’s own super PAC, American Crossroads, has raised $100 million for the 2012 elections over the past 15 months and has been the subject of sustained criticism from the left.
“We’re going to take what the Democrats have been doing and turn it back on them,” Rove observed, “and suddenly it’s a problem.”
When asked about the allegedly growing sentiment that American political institutions have shown themselves to be incapable of addressing ongoing challenges facing the nation, Gibbs said the Republican Party should bear the blame for the lack of legislative progress.
“We’re not dealing with the Republican Party of only a few years ago,” Gibbs asserted. “If we did…we’d get a hell of a lot done.”
Rove cited efforts undertaken by both parties to address prominent issues and declined to assign blame completely to either party.
“The system does need some work, but it doesn’t need replacement,” Rove said. “This is about people failing to live up to responsibilities within the system.”