Ford and Steele Share Stage and Laughs in Issues-Focused Debate

Camaraderie and candor, not culture wars and campaign tactics, were the rule Wednesday night as Harold Fold, Jr. took on Michael Steele in Page Auditorium for a debate on “America’s Next President: Leading Through Turbulent Times.”

The Hart Leadership Program’s Connect2Politics Initiative, in cooperation with the Duke University Union and Black Student Alliance, sponsored the debate between two longtime friends and rising stars in their respective parties. Steele, a Republican, is the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and the first African American elected to state office there. He now serves as chairman of GOPAC and appears as a commentator on FOX news. Ford, who is from Tennessee, spent 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and now chairs the Democratic Leadership Council. Both men lost close races for the U.S. Senate in 2006.

Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld moderated, though his prepared questions soon fell by the wayside as the candidates themselves shaped the flow of the debate.

Without time limits or a rigid format, the candidates transitioned from the presidential campaign to foreign policy and energy. At times they clashed fiercely, pushing each other to explain their positions. Other times the two friends nodded in agreement with the other’s points, cracking jokes and belying the notion that there is no common ground between Democrats and Republicans.

“We can be a little intellectual here, we can get gritty-not greedy, that’s Wall Street, but gritty-we can be friends and we can be adversaries,” said Steele in his opening statement.

After a lead-off question on John McCain and Barack Obama’s vice-presidential picks, Schoenfeld asked Steele and Ford what advice they had for the country’s next president.

“Don’t panic and don’t do anything stupid,” Steele responded. He explained that with huge swings in the markets and in oil prices, the temptation to panic and take hasty action would be great, but that the next president needed to avoid rushed solutions. “A short-term fix does have long-term consequences,” he said.

Ford likewise kept his advice straightforward.

“Don’t blame anyone and work hard,” he said. Ford said the next president would need to work quickly-even before January 20, 2009-to pass an economic stimulus bill and to renew frayed relationships between the United States and its European allies to secure support in the Middle East.

Ford added that if Obama were elected, his first leadership challenge would come from his own party. With strong Democratic majorities projected in both the House and Senate, Obama will need to rein in the liberal members of his party and prove he can govern as a moderate, Ford said.

The two speakers showed some of their sharpest differences on energy policy. Steele emphasized the importance of offshore drilling and of experts in the private sector working to achieve energy independence.

“I say ‘drill, baby, drill,’ but we need to do a whole lot more,” he said, adding that the United States has faced the same energy problems for 30 years. “The only way this changes is if we change it. Who’s going to do it, and when do we get started?”

Ford agreed with Steele on the ineffectiveness of America’s energy strategy, but said Obama, if elected, would put America on a path towards combating climate change and achieving energy independence.

“For 30 years our energy strategy has been cheap gas prices,” Ford said. He praised T. Boone Pickens for advocating increased wind power across the country and praised both McCain and Obama for agreeing on the science behind global warming and the need for a cap and trade system on carbon emissions.

“Senator Obama will put us on a far more aggressive path to achieving this,” Ford said.

In responding to audience questions, Ford and Steele discussed campaign finance reform and the future of the Republican party, speaking frankly and heatedly when it came to race and the Republicans. Steele described the challenges he’d faced as a black Republican and insisted that the GOP needed to become more welcoming.

“The face of the party should be a black face, a female face-it should be the face of America,” he said.