First Institute of Politics event of the year debuts to a packed house

Hundreds of University of Chicago students helped the Institute of Politics kick off its inaugural event of the academic year, an evening organized to mark the first U.S. presidential debate of the 2012 election season.

Held on Wednesday, Oct. 3 in the Performance Hall at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the event included an interview with Newton N. Minow, often called the father of televised presidential debates, and a rigorous student debate, followed by a live viewing of the presidential debate. The occasion gave students a taste of the types of activities the non-partisan Institute of Politics will bring to campus.

“[This event] is indicative of our mission, which is to provide a powerful supplement to your exceptional academic curriculum here at the University of Chicago and instill in you a passion for politics and public service,” Institute Executive Director Darren Reisberg told the audience. He then introduced the evening’s moderator, Steve Edwards, an esteemed Chicago radio host, who joined the Institute of Politics on Monday, Oct. 1, as Deputy Director for Programming.

Interviewed by Edwards, Newton N. Minow, vice-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, spoke about the history of televised presidential debates, explaining the origins of the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, and why 16 years had passed before another one was held. Congress’ refusal to revoke the equal time rule, which stipulated that equal airtime must be given to all legally qualified political candidates, stymied broadcasters for years.

“It may surprise you that this year, there are 410 candidates who have registered with the Federal Election Commission,” said Minow, explaining the hurdle caused by the equal time rule. “It is impossible to have a debate with hundreds of candidates.”

Although Congress never changed the law, in the 1970s the Federal Communications Commission altered its interpretation by classifying presidential debates as news events. Equal time restrictions did not apply to news events and in 1976, President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter debated for a television audience. Minow defended the debates as serving an important purpose in U.S. presidential elections.

“I regard [the debates] more as job interviews than I would as debates,” said Minow. “I think what the voters want is a combination of where does the candidate stand on issues but also, is this a candidate I can trust? Is this a candidate I respect? You want to get a feel of the personality and character of the person, and I think you get that more this way.”

Following the discussion with Minow, Edwards moderated a debate between four College students on the economy, healthcare and the role of government—three of the six topics the two U.S. presidential candidates would be facing later that evening. The students gave the best arguments for the candidates they support, in their own words, with fourth-year Stephen Lurie of the UChicago Democrats and Eric Thurm of the Debate Society defending the Democratic side, and third-year Eric Wessan of the College Republicans and Mark Mahvi of the Model UN Team taking the Republican side.

“Even in a debate at half the length of the real debate, there are so many potential topics to keep in mind that I can't imagine how the actual candidates keep everything straight going into the debate,” said Thurm. “I really appreciated the opportunity to participate in that blend of intensive research and rhetoric.”

A reception offered a short break between the student debate and the Obama-Romney debate, which students watched on the Logan Performance Hall’s huge viewing screen. Students interacted through tweets via the hashtag #informed2012, which scrolled on an on-stage screen, leading to dynamic exchanges, frank observations and occasional uproarious laughter.

“I thought the event was amazing in that it allowed the students on the University of Chicago campus to get involved in politics,” said Wessan. “Seeing so many people so excited about the presidential election was one of the most inspiring observations I made.”

Announced in January 2012, the non-partisan Institute of Politics has three main components: a program of visiting fellows and policy practitioners, an expanded set of policy and public interest internships, and a series of public lectures about policy and political life. Participants in the student debate said they relish the opportunity such events provide to actively explore issues in politics and public service.

“I think this type of event is good for the campus because it is outside a discipline,” said Lurie after the event. “It isn't just interdisciplinary—between politics, media, history, etc.—but extra-disciplinary: It is also just good fun."