Jake Halpern, Marc Thiessen come to UConn for political discussion

Journalist Jake Halpern (left) speaks next to Marc Thiessen (right), a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, at a discussion hosted by the UConn College Democrats and College Republicans in the Biophysics Building on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. (Olivia Stenger/The Daily Campus)

The University of Connecticut College Democrats and College Republicans put aside their differences in order to host a high-profile debate; or rather, a discussion. 

Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, member of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for the Washington Post came to UConn last night to have a “Conversation on Politics and Culture.” He was joined by Jake Halpern, journalist for NPR who has published his work in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. 

There were excited murmurs before the event, where Halpern, the “liberal standard-bearer” and Thiessen, Halpern’s conservative counterpart, addressed a crowd of UConn College Democrats and College Republicans, members of the undergraduate student government, political science majors, students who belonged to the College Democrats of Connecticut and other interested parties.

President of the College Democrats Brianna DeVivo, introduced Halpern, and vice president of the College Republicans Gianna Bodnar introduced Thiessen. College Republican president Paul DaSilva prefaced the event, and College Democrat vice president Joseph Carvalho provided a postscript.

The dialogue began with Halpern and Thiessen offering opening statements, where Thiessen said he respected the College Republicans because it’s “hard to stand up for conservative values on a college campus in today’s politically correct culture.” Halpern called himself primarily a non-fiction writer.

The first topic, foreign policy, was debated for almost an hour. The most significant divergence arose on the issues of the Iraq War and ground troops in Syria.

Thiessen mentioned the “greatest conservative leaders” he has worked with, including Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Thiessen started his argument on the volatility of international relations with a simile. 

“Becoming an ally with the U.S. is like getting into bed with a hippopotamus,” Thiessen said. “First it’s warm and fuzzy. Then they roll over on top of you. And the worst part is, they don’t even know you’re there.”

Halpern was adamant in his opposition to the Iraq War, which he called a “long mistake,” pointing to the 134,000 dead Iraqis and 4,500 dead Americans with nothing to show for it except instability in the region.

“To be too gun shy to go in a second time is not cowardice, but smart,” Halpern said in reference to sending ground troops into Syria. 

Halpern advocated a nuanced strategy between “drawing a line in the sand” and “intervening,” rather than unilateral intervention. 

In response, Thiessen used World War II and Nazi Germany as rhetorical tools. 

“Why did the world’s democracies not stop the Nazi movement before it gained power?” Thiessen said. “The answer, sadly, was the exact same reason that the world has done nothing to stop the rise of the Islamic state.” 

Thiessen went on to outline the goals of ISIS, one of which is to create a “totalitarian Islamic empire.” He said the U.S. ignored Osama Bin Laden’s words before 9/11, as well as Hitler when he outlined his plan for racial and political domination in Mein Kampf.  After hearing the threats from ISIS leaders, Thiessen questioned: “Do we listen?”

DaSilva and DeVivo alternated asking questions of the political operative and the journalist. 

Halpern didn’t waste any time in responding to Thiessen’s claims, saying that the WWII analogy is used “every time we want to go to war.”

“I’m not saying don’t go to war, I’m not a yellow-bellied liberal, I’m just saying let’s be damn sure we ask some smart questions before we jump back in again,” Halpern said.

This is when Thiessen attempted to push back on Halpern’s characterization of the Iraq War. Thiessen called Bush’s “surge” a success, and stated that the reason Iraq was a qualified success is because President Barack Obama pulled out troops too early. Thiessen also criticized Obama’s hesitance to put “boots on the ground” in Syria and his predilection to avoid civilian casualties. 

“We cannot sit back and withdraw from the world, we have to stop these people,” Thiessen said.

Halpern was again skeptical, saying that sending a few Special Ops troops in and hoping to resolve the issue would be naïve. 

The chat turned to domestic policy, where Halpern and Thiessen partially agreed on the fundamental problems facing the country, but disagreed on solutions. 

Halpern spoke passionately about income inequality, the “divide that goes right down the center of America between the haves and the have-nots.” He mentioned that 400 of the richest Americans have more money than 150 million others, and fixing the matter is “not about charity, not about entitlement, it’s about nation-building.”

Thiessen’s rebuttal was to reframe the problem. For him, “It’s not about income inequality, but mobility inequality.” It is Thiessen’s opinion that morale is low – people no longer believe in the American dream. He advocated charity for the poor rather than raising taxes, while making apparent he has no desire to decimate the social safety net.

In a quick retort, Halpern said that people are angry, not listless, because the system isn’t working. 

“The game feels like it’s rigged, at least in the tax code,” Halpern said. 

The final subject discussed in-depth was the upcoming presidential election. Thiessen thought “this was going to be the year of the governors,” but acknowledged that instead three political outsiders – Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump – lead the Republican pack. 

“This is not just an anti-Washington election, it’s an anti-political election,” Thiessen said. “Republicans are deeply frustrated with…their party’s inability to fight for them.”

After Thiessen said that “Work is a blessing…We find dignity through work,” and Halpern said “Terrorism is a sexy threat, and it’s not unreal, but this (income inequality) is a menacing threat too, and people don’t see it,” Halpern said. He closed the night appropriately with comments about conciliation between conservatives and liberals. 

“Jake is great. He’s a smart guy and we had a very civil discussion,” Thiessen said of his partner. “There’s a lot we can agree on…I thought we found some common ground…I think that conservatives do care about poverty…I think we have better solutions [than Democrats] to those problems…The best thing that could happen for poor people in America is having Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, competing for the best ideas to help them.”

“I’m really a journalist more than I am a pundit, and Marc was a real gentleman. He called me up beforehand and said ‘let’s make this a discussion,’ and I said ‘thank God,’” Halpern said. “I think that we were able to have a meaningful discussion. We disagreed on a few things rather intensely, but it was all done in a thoughtful way. We’re kind of a weird mismatch ‘cause Marc’s so knowledgeable about foreign policy and I’m more a domestic guy, but we made it work, and it was fun.”


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.