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On the Debate

Written by Bjenning Sep 27, 2007

First, I’d just like to introduce myself, my name is Bryan Jennings and I’m an intern at NYRA’s National Office, cozy little place that it is, here in Washington DC. I’m at American University for the Semester, but I usually go to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster Pennsylvania. Those interested in knowing more are free to ask.

Anyway, I watched parts of the Democratic debate last night in between writing a paper for homework and doing my assigned readings and I have to say I was disappointed. Hillary really dodged a lot of questions that should have warranted honest and straight forward answers. What is more sad is that this evasion and obfuscation is seen as a demonstration of skilled statesmanship. To think, not answering a direct question is seen as a quality that makes for a great leader. If it wasn’t so ridiculous I’d call it amusing.

I was also underwhelmed by the perennial favorite of the youth, Barrack Obama. I’ve said it for some time, but I feel that man has very little in terms of policy ideas or true vision for the country and more of a nebulous view that something is wrong, but he’s cautiously optimistic things can all be put right. That’s what gets me about Obama, the cautious optimism. Not that optimism is bad, Winston Churchill, the best Briton since… well… anyone, said that he’s an optimist since he didn’t see the point to being anything else. But Churchill had passion and bold ideas, the “Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears” speech was not one of cautious optimism, but of a man that honestly knew how to lead. Obama’s answers to questions were… luke warm at best, and when he could have gone after Hillary for dodging questions, he refused to make it confrontational. While I applaud the idea of backing off bitter political infighting there are times when you just need to call people on their BS.

My favorite point in the evening though only lasted a few minutes. A mother of two teenage boys asked the candidates, starting with Joe Biden, if they would support the government no longer strong arming states with highway funds to adopt the 21 year old drinking age. Not the usual sort of question asked in a presidential debate, and one that I thought was interesting, being a 20 year old and living on a dry campus. Biden, to his credit, didn’t pull any punches and attempt to placate people who might disagree. However, his position was one of adamant opposition to lowering the drinking age, on the grounds that alcoholism is a problem in this country. He made some comment about 300,000 children being born deformed by alcohol.

I’ll give Biden the benefit of the doubt on the numbers, though 300,000 seems incredibly high considering the national population of 300 million (that would mean that roughly .1% of the population of America is born deformed by alcohol every year). However, how many of those births are happening because of people drinking under 21? Does the drinking age prevent alcoholism? Isn’t alcoholism a problem of alcohol abuse instead of alcohol use? He also says that drinking leads to many cases of drunk driving. But again, numbers show that more drunk driving happens with people over 40 (Something I didn’t know until I worked here). Also, in a related study, it was shown that most house fires are caused by fire! I wonder when they’ll set a “fire-starting age” to regulate our nation’s fireplaces and wood stoves? He then talked about negotiating health care prices or something? I didn’t really follow it. Astonishingly, Biden’s response received no applause. That’s right. None.
We then move on to another of the Democratic longshots who still remains a very prominent Senator, Chris Dodd. I really like Dodd, I interned with him over the summer. I think he’d make a good president, but his view on alcohol is, like many politicians, backwards. He said that the evidence is “overwhelming.” Indeed it is Senator, but not in the way you think. After we raised the drinking age drunk driving was reduced in the 18-21 year old age bracket. The problem is, it went up, by a nearly identical number in the 21-24 year old age bracket. What more, it didn’t change at all in those areas that already have a 21 year old drinking age before the law went into effect. Oh, and I forgot to mention, 40 year olds still cause more drunk driving accidents than both those age groups put together. The evidence, as the good Senator says, is overwhelming. Dodd also received no applause.

Richardson was up next and he too was opposed to lowering the drinking age back to a reasonable level. He did say how the focus should be on rehabilitating those who abuse alcohol and putting money into medical research in general, he also talked about the importance of educating people about alcohol which is not a horrible answer. Sensing something of a pattern, the moderator, Tim Russert, asked if any candidates supported the drinking age being lowered. I was pessimistic, perhaps I should take lessons from Obama, but to my general astonishment, Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich were the voices of reason. Gravel, in his usual tone of “Angry Man Scaring Teenagers Off His Lawn” had this to say:

“I think we should lower it so that anyone who can fight and die for this country can have a drink!” and finished by pointing accusingly at the camera.

The audience went wild, apparently Gravel said something that resonated with voters. Who’d have thought? Not to be outdone, Dennis Kucinich put forth an even more bold proposal:

“I think that not only about service, but we have to have confidence in young Americans and a president who reaches out to them and talks to them about drinking responsibly is much better than a president who tells them ‘Thall Shalt Not’ because young people will do what they do. But they’re looking for leadership from a president, I’m ready to provide that. Of course they should be able to drink at age 18 and they should be able to vote at age 16.”

That got more applause and a bit of laughter, my guess would be on the comment on voting. Putting aside his cute little bit of self-aggrandizement on leadership, Kucinich basically said what NYRA has believed all along: that we need to have faith in young people and that if you give them responsibility, they’ll respond positively. The comment about the voting age was really the most shocking thing to me, and apparently to Kucinich’s campaign as well. According to a NYRA member that actually works in his campaign, no one in the campaign expected him to say that.

I’m glad he did though. Kucinich and Gravel are both seen as longshots, no question, and I don’t realistically see any of them capturing the general election if they somehow manage to make the primary, but having politicians, elected officials, officially endorse what is easily one of the most common sense policy ideas NYRA has is very encouraging. I wished someone of the stature of a Dodd or a Biden had said the same, but I didn’t expect much less, they’re Senators, they’re used to not causing controversy unless it’s very well staged on their terms. (Well, except for Biden, the man knows how to run his mouth, but he’s certainly gotten better).

I also wonder how much of politician’s opposition to lowering the drinking age comes from the remarkably powerful lobby MADD has. They have a multi-million dollar budget, and are strong political advocates, and it’s tough not to sympathize with their position. I think drunk driving is awful too, I just completely disagree with how they approach it. Who knows, maybe one day someone over there will actually agree their approach isn’t working and start playing for the good guys. Until then, we’ll have Kucinich and our friend from Alaska to carry on the fight. And us of course

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