*Photo Credit: Samuel Bleifer/Polis Media

Six debaters, representing three major political organizations at Pitt, were packed tightly in a row as attendees crammed into a large lecture hall in the Cathedral of Learning. They had come for what the Pitt Political Science Student Association (PSSA) has billed as “The Great Three-Way Debate,” the event featured the Pitt chapters of College Democrats, College Republicans, and Students for Liberty.

The moderator, PSSA President Jonathan Merker, asked four questions that focused on the areas of healthcare, student loans, private prisons, and terrorism. Perhaps sorely missing from the debate were any questions about the most pressing issues in recent months like Russia, North Korea, or tax reform.

Before the questions were asked, each organization gave opening statements, reflecting the platforms of their respective parties. After the two major parties explained their party platforms in typical fashion, Ben Sheppard, President of SFL, immediately attempted to separate himself from the two major parties on either side of him, saying, “Tonight on stage there are two other parties. On one hand, we have the party of corruption and control. On the other hand, I have the party of big war and big government. And, to be honest with you, I can’t tell which one is which.” This remark received the largest applause from the audience of the night.  

The debate itself began with a question on healthcare, framed as whether the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” clause of the Declaration of Independence should at all frame the healthcare debate. Though framed in an unconventional way, the question sparked conventional responses from the three groups. The College Republicans advocated FDA reform to bring down drug prices, allowing insurance companies to sell across state lines to increase competition, and block grants to states similar to those proposed in the various Republican healthcare reform bills considered earlier this year. The Democrats praised the progress made under Obamacare while outlining their belief in a public option which, they argued, was supported by a majority of Americans in public opinion polls. The Libertarians attacked both Obamacare and the various Republican healthcare plans, accusing the latter of raising prices for seniors and bailing out insurance companies. In the Democratic rebuttal, the speaker declared that, “Free market encourages competition between healthcare companies which, I believe, is the wrong thing to do.”

Following healthcare came student loans, which produced a more lively discussion. Republicans and Libertarians took similar positions, arguing that the root cause of high student loans was an excessive amount of lending from the federal government, thereby allowing universities to endlessly raise tuition. The Republicans argued that one way to cut back on loan distribution would be to cut off loans to saturated majors. The Democrats, warning of a student loan bubble that could burst and damage the economy, countered with a variety of proposals, including free community college, student loan refinancing options, and a moratorium on student loan payments.

The third debate topic asked whether private prisons should continue to be used. The Republicans began by acknowledging the current problems within private prisons, but advocated for reforms that would turn them into a net positive. Such reforms included properly screening and training guards, the assurance that inmates have the same quality of life as inmates in public prisons, and the elimination of contracts that incentivize private prisons to simply fill beds. The Democrats came out against private prisons, calling them “large corporations that are for profit.” They also emphasized rehabilitation and education to prevent recidivism. The Libertarians instead focused on the broader issue of criminal justice. They claimed that in both public and private prisons, there is an issue of overcrowding with nonviolent drug offenders and undocumented immigrants. They concluded that there must be criminal justice reform before the reforming of private prisons.

The fourth and final debate topic was terrorism. The Libertarians began by conceding that “We do have a responsibility to reduce terrorism in Europe.” However, they argued that ending harmful US policies in the Middle East was the best way to combat terrorism. In doing so, they singled out Democrats for drone strikes and Republicans for invading Iraq and Afghanistan which, they claimed, encouraged terrorism. The Libertarians instead advocated for trade as a solution that will reduce poverty, strengthen ties to other nations, and empower civil rights.  The Democrats promoted helping our allies because “we are more likely to have friends if we help.” They noted that international cooperation pulls greater resources that can better combat terrorism. The Republicans began by stating that the war on terror is an ideological war between the West and radical Islam. Referencing the Manchester Arena terrorist attack following an Ariana Grande concert last May, the Republicans ended by bluntly stating, “And for all of you who think that culture doesn’t matter, you better hope you don’t have a sister or a cousin who likes Ariana Grande.”

When asked about the motivation behind the event, Merker said that he thought a three-way debate would be better than “sticking along those two partisan lines.”

Debaters from all three clubs expressed gratitude to their fellow debaters for a civil debate and to PSSA for putting on such a great event. College Republicans debater A.J. Marinelli noted that there were “some shots fired between each group, but that makes the debates more interesting.”

Despite some shots being fired, each group found at least one instance in which they agreed in part with another on the stage; highlighting the potential for debates such as this to help bridge the partisan divide in today’s polarized political climate.