At the two public watch parties held on campus Tuesday night, students generally said they felt the first Democratic debate covered the most important issues. Even so, students were divided on whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won the debate.
The University’s chapter of the College Democrats and Students for Sanders both held watch parties for Thursday’s debate, which aired on CNN. In addition to Clinton and Sanders, the two Democratic frontrunners, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee also participated.
The College Democrats’ watch party filled two large auditoriums in the Ford School of Public Policy, while a Students for Sanders event drew about 40 students to an apartment off-campus for pizza and drinks.
Aaron Kall, director of the University’s debate program, said he thought Clinton gave the best overall performance. He added that he thought the Democratic debate was less contentious than the Republican one, with far less negativity and back-and-forth between candidates.
“They wanted it to be more of a discussion on the issues and substance as opposed to the more personality contrast between the different candidates,” he said.
Public Policy senior Max Lerner, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said the Democratic debate was more productive compared with the Republican debate because of the smaller number of people on stage.
“I think not having a clown show of 10 or 11 different candidates actually allows us to dive deeper into the issues, and I think we’re going to have a stronger nominee because of it,” he said.
Public Policy senior Cody Giddings, chair of the College Republicans, wrote in an e-mail interview that the smaller Democratic field allowed the moderator to address a more diverse array of topics compared to the previous two Republican debates, but felt foreign policy should have received more attention.
“The debate was somewhat interesting to watch and covered a few important issues,” he said. “I look forward to seeing the rest of the debates throughout the campaign season and I hope that republicans and democrats can come together to address some the very hard issues we will all face moving forward.”
Sanders and Clinton both stressed the importance of an affordable college degree, but they disagreed on how much of a student’s tuition should be funded through taxes.
Sanders said a college degree today is equivalent to what a high school degree was 50 years ago, and therefore should be available for every student regardless of his or her family’s income.
“What we said 50 years ago and 100 years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high school education regardless of their income,” Sanders said. “I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college.”
Students applauded when Sanders added that taxes on “Wall Street speculation” — or risky financial transactions — would fund those degrees.
Clinton supports tuition-free public colleges. However, her plan would require students with aid to work at least 10 hours a week to help fund their education. Clinton’s plan would also allow all students with debt to refinance in order to lower interest rates.
“My plan would enable anyone to go to a public college or university tuition-free,” she said.
Kall said the discussion on college affordability failed to elaborate on funding mechanisms and the feasibility of the proposed education policy reforms and said he expected more discussion about the likelihood of such a bill passing through a Republican-controlled Congress.
“I thought there would be some more discussion about the affordability of it,” Kall said. “Exactly how it’s going to be paid for, if there are going to be other programs that were cut to pay for it.”
Last July, the University’s Board of Regents increased tuition by 2.7 percent for in-state students and 3.7 percent for out-of-state students. Overall, base tuition for LSA students has increased 60 percent for in-state students and 55 percent for out-of-state students from 2005 to 2014.
Rackham student Shawn Danino, an organizer of the Students for Sanders watch party held on campus, said Sanders’ positions on higher education have been more aggressive compared to other candidates. He said Sanders’ desire to make college free for all students is a reason for his strong support from the college demographic.
“The reason there’s so much momentum with Bernie across millennials is largely because of his stances on student loans and his stances on debt,” Danino said.
Lerner said positions on higher education held by Democratic candidates were better than those held by Republican candidates. He said Republican budget positions on education do not reflect the values of students. He pointed to the House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wis.), whose 2016 fiscal budget would cut funding for education by $145 billion over 10 years.
“Democrats are really the only party out there fighting for students on the issue of education,” Lerner said. “I think regardless of who the nominee is, we’re going to have a party that represents the interests of students.”
Giddings, the College Republicans chair, said he disagreed with the candidates’ plans to increase college affordability.
“I think Bernie Sanders’ goal of providing a college level education to every American that wants one is noble, but in my mind his proposals to simply make college tuition free are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of basic economic principles,” he said. “Contrary to what was said for the majority of the democratic presidential debate, implementing higher taxes is not the answer to every problem America faces and rising college tuition costs is no exception.”
The candidates were also asked about their positions on allowing universities to grant in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students, a measure which the University’s Board of Regents passed in 2013.
Martin O’Malley took the strongest stance in favor of undocumented students gaining in-state tuition.
“The more children learn, the more they earn,” O’Malley said.
Though Clinton agreed with O’Malley, she said states should drive those policies.
LSA sophomore Nicholas Kolenda, president of Students for Sanders, said he supports the Democratic candidates’ positions on granted the same tuition fees to undocumented students as citizens.
“I do completely agree with Sanders and O’Malley on the position that if they are working to become naturalized citizens, then, yes, they should receive free education,” Kolenda said.
The candidates also touched on gun control when asked about the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, which left nine people dead.
Ann Arbor open carry advocate Joshua Wade is currently suing the University for violating Michigan’s open carry law when it denied his right to carry his firearm on campus. Because Michigan allows people with concealed carry permits to carry guns in public areas, such as schools and churches, Wade and his lawyer say the University should allow him the right to carry his weapon.
Debate moderator Anderson Cooper asked Sanders about his voting history on gun control, pointing out that he opposed the Brady Bill, which established background checks on firearms. Sanders said he voted the way he did because Vermont is a rural state where guns are used for recreation.
LSA senior Stephen Culbertson, communications chair of College Democrats, said he believes gun control is an important issue and one that Democrats offer better legislation on than the majority of Republicans.
“Republicans shied away from gun control policies because most of the candidates, if not all of them, on that stage are very at odds with what the vast majority of voters in America believe about gun control,” Culbertson said.
Giddings said he doesn’t think proposals raised by Democratic candidates would prove effective or legal.
“Gun control is a very salient and complex issue,” he said. “Although we need to do more to ensure that background checks, gun registries, and mental health care prevent the types of gun-related violence that have become much too commonplace in America, the simple blanket bans proposed in tonight’s debate are not only unconstitutional but ineffective at addressing the roots of the problem.”