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'Obama' wins OHMS debate
OXFORD HILLS — The entire eighth grade swarms into the forum at OHCHS Tuesday morning to observe the only presidential debate in Oxford Hills this campaign season.
Of course, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney aren't in attendance – two young politicos, Democrat Colin O'Neil and Republican Ryan Lorrain, take the floor to represent their respective candidates.
A live debate, with active local political folk, is a way to engage students in American politics – the candidates will answer questions from students that reflect the concerns students are hearing at home – what issues their families think are most important, says social studies teacher Joe Cummings, who organized the debate.
The atmosphere in the room is more familiar than confrontational – Lorrain and O'Neil are long-time acquaintances, having been only a year apart at OHCHS. In fact, Lorrain says in his introductory remarks, the two arrived to the debate in the same car.
The friendly banter between the two “candidates” is a merciful relief compared to the open hostility displayed during the real presidential debates between Romney and Obama – although open conflict might have held the attention of a roomful of middle schoolers a little better, as adults swoop in periodically to break up ever increasing conversations between students.
Eight questions, covering ground from party ideology to gas prices; Afghanistan to college debt; and, of course, national debt and the economy, are given to the “candidates” over the hour-long debate.
Early on, it seems like “Romney” might have the upper hand. Dressed in a blazer, slacks and tie, he certainly seems more “political” or maybe just more Republican, than “Obama” who opted for a more casual, hip, some might say, “liberal” look – jeans, untucked shirt, Toms-style shoes.
In a debate situation, however, performance is everything, and as the debate progresses, “Obama” edges out his challenger.
Of course, many of the answers “Obama” gives won't win him an election – openly calling for steep tax increases on the rich, asking Americans to consider what they might be doing to raise ire from people in the world or calling for more regulation on the energy speculation market.
However, even if the answers “Obama” is providing aren't necessarily what people want to hear, they demonstrate a comprehension of the issues “Romney's” responses lack and, moreover, have the appearance of sincerity.
From the back of the room, it seems as though “Romney” has memorized a Republican playbook – regurgitating answers in the form of bullet-points and having difficulty delivering his positions with clarity and precision.
In the end, Obama's demonstration of sincerity and his delivery, as well as a mid-point performance during an exchange about the national deficit, provides a superior debate performance.
Not to say that every answer is golden – the Democrat's position on Afghanistan and how to approach college debt are unimpressive.
“Obama” also demonstrates a willingness to go on the offensive, perhaps learning a lesson from the real President's first lackluster debate performance.
This is best displayed in an exchange between the “candidates” on the subject of the national deficit.
“Romney,” answering first, claims the Obama Administration has created more deficit than all other presidents combined, particularly with the Affordable Care Act or "Obamacare."
He warns that the government cannot afford more borrowing, highlighting the damaging effects of high debt on other countries and suggesting spending cuts are necessary.
In his response, “Obama” takes a second before springing from his seat and pacing the stage, eliciting laughter from the crowd as he lambastes the Republican position on the deficit.
"Don't listen to a thing Republicans have to say about the deficit," a peeved “Obama” tells the students. "You're not going to get a truthful word out of them."
“Obama” flatly denies “he” has increased the deficit so massively while in power. In fact, he says, "he" has increased it at a slower rate than any president since Eisenhower.
He also reminds students that Republican presidents have a much worse track record on balancing budgets than Democrats.
“Obama's” attack on Republicans and his solution to the deficit problem, higher tax cuts on the rich, should have been a low-hanging fruit for “Romney,” or at least resulted in an equal response. The Republican, however, gives a weak rebuttal, only emphasizing “Obama's” performance.
“Romney's” heartfelt, and well-informed, answer to a question concerning attitudes about negative campaign ads doesn't win him any points.
“You wouldn't do negative attack ads if they didn't work," “Romney” says.
The “candidate” then treats students to the cynical reality of modern campaigning, reiterating that, although distasteful negative campaigns are part of the game – many attack ads aren't even sponsored by candidates, “Romney” tells the students, but funded by outside political action committees.
Despite the fact that everyone is tired of hearing and seeing negative ads, “Romney” acknowledges their reality as a campaign tool.
Responding to the question, “Obama” is far more critical of attack ads, using their existence to explain an overall opposition to money in politics. The Democrat urges students not to pay attention to negative advertising which, he says, is almost entirely untruthful.
In opposition to the huge sums of money in politics, O'Neil/Obama tells the students he is running his own campaign, for a seat in the state legislature, without any money.
The difference between the two responses couldn't be clearer – one, a denunciation of negative advertising and the power money has in politics. The other, a startlingly informed look at the cynical reality of modern campaigning.
As the hour mark approaches, the eighth graders' attention spans are reaching a breaking point. It is time to draw the debate to a close.
Lorrain/Romney encourages students to vote for their respective candidates during the mock election, held in schools across the state November 6.
In recognition of the purpose of the exercise, O'Neil/Obama tells eighth graders that, even if they were squirming in their seats during the current debate, politics would be a reality in their future.
"You will find that there are issues that are of particular importance to you," he says.
"When you find something that really matches up with you, trust me, there will always be a connection to politics."
Interest in politics might be a future reality, but for the OHMS eighth grade class on Tuesday, getting back to school for lunch takes priority – seconds after a brief applause for the candidates, a solid stream of students struggles through the forum's double doors.