Obama, McCain supporters hold forum


Only a day after vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin faced each other in debate, local supporters of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain did their best to sway students and teachers at the Wardlaw Hartridge School in Edison.

The forum, moderated by the school’s headmaster, Andrew Webster, featured short statements by Edison Mayor Jun Choi, speaking for Obama, and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-21st District), speaking for McCain, followed by an extended question-and-answer session with students.

Both Choi and Bramnick went to great lengths to voice respect and admiration for each other during the forum, despite expressing some fundamental differences in world views between the two men.

During the forum, Choi said that Obama, for whom he voted as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August, represented a change in the way politics are conducted in this country, which Choi described as polarized. He presented his case for the candidate in terms of his ability to inspire people, even those who ordinarily aren’t interested in politics or community service.

“I look at Barack Obama in this sense: He is an inspirational leader, and the quality we need in this country is someone to inspire people to answer a call,” said Choi. “We are a very fragmented country. … We sort of lost the original experience of seeking the American dream.”

Bramnick, speaking for McCain, stressed his candidate’s knowledge and experience as reasons why he supports him, as well as his belief in McCain’s strength of character, evidenced by his conduct when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

“Experience, at least in my world, is an extremely important aspect,” Bramnick said. “I will never discount experience. It is incredibly important.” He then talked about what he believes is Obama’s relative lack of experience, and said that hope and change are good ideas, but without experience, it’s difficult to bring them to life.

“[He has] many, many years in Washington, many, many years in dealing with foreign leaders and getting things done,” he added later.

Choi responded by saying that many people in the current administration also had a lot of knowledge and experience but felt the country was no better off. Specifically, he named current Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and noted that despite their experience, they “fundamentally destroyed the foreign policy of our nation and put our nation at risk.”

“So, it’s not the number of years [that matter]. It’s about the quality of experience and the quality of judgment,” said Choi.

One student asked the two mayors what their thoughts were about Palin.

Bramnick said that in his opinion, Palin was necessary to balance the ticket, as well as give the GOP the ability to fight Obama on his turf.

“If there’s one thing about the U.S., it’s that we love a movie star. … They probably thought that they needed to fight on the same turf as the Democratic candidate,” said Bramnick.

Choi had a somewhat lower opinion of the vice presidential candidate.

“I think, given the challenges we face as a country, I don’t think America wants a hockey mom for the sake of a hockey mom. If she were a hockey mom that was a master of foreign policy and Wall Street economics, then I would choose the hockey mom. But I don’t think that represents Sarah Palin,” said Choi. This answer drew loud applause from the student body.

Choi and Bramnick also spoke about the differences, both practical and philosophical, behind both presidential candidates’ tax policies. Choi said that Obama’s tax policy would help the middle class, saying that 95 percent of people would see no tax increases, with only people making more than $250,000 a year having to pay more.

“The basic difference between the two candidates is that Barack Obama believes middle-class and working families should get tax relief, not those making more than a quarter-million a year,” said Choi. “The tax breaks should be better distributed. We’re not here to support some fat cats who have not helped our economy.”

Bramnick, on the other hand, said that such a tax policy went against the fundamental grain of capitalism and would not help individual initiative, and he called the plan “interventionist.”

“Let the individual person earn money, succeed, and keep government out of the formula as much as possible, because government does not do anything very well,” said Bramnick. The Obama plan, he said, governs from the political left when politicians should govern from the center.

“Governing from the left, you will see the consequences of higher taxes for everyone, and government trying to solve every problem that exists. … When you try to redistribute wealth, it is not consistent with the basic concept of capitalism,” he continued.

Choi defended Obama’s capitalist credentials, saying that his candidate is more of a pragmatist than an interventionist.

“He believes in smart regulation when it matters. Barack Obama is a capitalist. … He also understands there are times when the government does need to intervene … but Barack Obama is a pragmatist, a problem solver,” said Choi, who added that the whole left-right divide is kind of farcical, and that he, himself, does not fall into that neat classification.

Bramnick agreed, saying he wishes there weren’t political parties at all.

Another student asked about a statement McCain made a few weeks ago about the fundamentals of the economy being strong. Bramnick said that McCain meant that the basic, capitalistic system was still functioning, but also said that as someone in a leadership position, one needs to choose one’s words carefully so as not to panic the market. He said that if McCain had been too pessimistic, the financial crisis would have gotten worse.

“You have to be very careful how honest you are at critical times,” said Bramnick.

The two were also asked where they differed in opinion from the candidates they were speaking for.

Bramnick succinctly pointed out that while he is

pro-choice, McCain is prolife.

Choi said that there weren’t too many differences between himself and Obama, though he said he had some concerns over fiscal policy.

“One general disagreement I have would be that I believe we need to be much more fiscally responsible. He is setting a set of issues that are desperately needed [such as health care] … and quite frankly, I have no idea how we’re going to pay for it,” said Choi. “I have concerns our country, right now, can’t afford it. … Right now, I am personally more of a fiscal conservative.”

Choi, however, also repeated that Obama is a pragmatist, and that he believes the senator would do what’s needed within the context of the economic times.

A great deal of time was spent discussing the war in Iraq and the differences between the Obama and McCain visions.

Choi said that Obama was right in that the U.S. should have never been in Iraq to begin with, and that there was a real problem with going into that country.

“But, you know what? We’re there now,” said Choi. The U.S., he said, should start giving more responsibility to the Iraqi people themselves. He said that the current situation hurts America’s standing in the world, which impairs its ability to be a leader on the international scene.

“America should be a humble leader, internationally. You don’t invade a country … because it supports your purposes,” said Choi.

Bramnick, on the other hand, said that setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is taking the easy way out and will only embolden America’s enemies.

“The easy answer is to get out of the Iraq war. … The issue, though, as we sit in Edison, New Jersey, is what is the effect of rapid withdrawal? Is Israel threatened? The Middle East? Does that mean Iraq falls? Does Iran move into Iraq? What happens if there’s an unstable Iraq? … These are not popular topics. … We can ignore the consequences, but there are people waiting out in the world every day thinking about how to kill Americans. We can’t let them take over the Middle East,” said Bramnick.

He said that it would be nice to think the world is a peaceful place where everyone can “hold hands and love each other.” But, he said, that’s not the way the world works.

Overall, those in attendance felt that the forum was informative and had a positive reaction to the speakers.

“I thought [Bramnick] was very honest and he spoke very well, and I don’t consider myself a, you know, but he made a lot of very good points, I thought. He’s good,” said Alisandra Cozzi, a teacher at Wardlaw Hartridge.

“He said a lot of things we tend to forget and sometimes we need to be reminded of. I like the fact that he doesn’t stand 100 percent for George Bush and his policies. You know, he should be running for V.P.”

“I thought they gave a lot of good information,” said Jourdan Campbell, a junior. “I liked how they were able to talk about the candidates and really get into what their points of view were and how they felt about the candidates they were representing. I felt like Mayor Choi, he definitely knew everything about Barack Obama as far as his policies and how he wanted to support him. [I liked] how [Obama] was influential and, more so, he’s new to politics but not in the sense he doesn’t know anything.”

Webster, the moderator, also felt that it was a great success overall.

“I thought the forum was excellent, and the kids had a lot of interesting questions, and we could have gone on, easily, for another 45 minutes. I thought both Mr. Bramnick and Mr. Choi did a great job of representing the points of view of the candidates, not just their own points of view, but the candidates’, and helped the kids learn about a wide variety of issues,” said Webster.