Former Bush adviser Karl Rove and one-time 2004 Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean traded barbs Thursday over health care and the stimulus bill and, surprisingly, even agreed on a few items during a lively debate.
The two squared off before a crowd of more than 2,500 people at the University at Albany’s SEFCU Arena. Jeffrey Straussman, dean of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, moderated.
Both speakers had reservations about the recently passed health care reform bill. Dean, a physician and former governor of Vermont, called it a “Republican bill” because it leaves health care in the hands of the private sector. But he said it was a major victory for the Obama administration.
“People want to see their president succeed,” said Dean, who also served as Democratic National Committee chairman from 2005 to 2009.
Rove said the fact that not a single Republican voted for the bill is troubling. Every other major piece of social legislation has had bipartisan support, he said.
“It is not good for the country to have a bill that is so polarizing and the president is responsible,” said Rove, who served as an adviser to President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2007.
He also criticized the bill’s cost and claimed Obama is double counting money, calling it “Bernie Madoff” accounting, referring to the disgraced Wall Street financier serving life in prison for a Ponzi scheme.
As Rove was speaking, some hecklers shouted from the crowd. Others in the audience shouted for them to be quiet and the debate continued without further incident.
Rove called the stimulus bill a failure and said 2.7 million jobs have been lost since Obama took office. Administration officials had predicted that the unemployment would top out at about 7 percent if the stimulus bill were passed, Rove said.
Dean said 600,000 public jobs were saved that would have been otherwise lost if it were not for stimulus money plugging state budget gaps. “There’s a whole lot of people in this audience that would have been headed for the unemployment line if it wasn’t for the stimulus package,” he said to applause.
Rove said only 5 percent of the funding went to shovel-ready projects and more of the money will be used between 2011 and 2019.
Both sides agreed that the government shouldn’t put a tax on sugary drinks, saying that’s not the way to change people’s behavior.
They also struck common ground on the contentious immigration reform bill, which failed during the Bush administration. “I think George Bush tried to do the right thing on immigration and he got killed by his own party,” Dean said. “How many people here have native blood in them?” he asked, and a few applauded. “Everybody else is an immigrant.”
Rove accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, of killing a bipartisan immigration reform plan.
Both men also agreed that political polarization is nothing new in this country.
Dean called some of the divisiveness a holdover from the cultural wars of the 1960s and said that the younger generation — which turned out in droves to vote for Obama — is pushing for government to take action.
“Their principal question to us is, ‘Will you stop fighting about the things you’ve been fighting about for 30 years and get something done?’ ”
He encouraged young people to stay active in politics. “You can’t just elect Barack Obama and say everything is going to be fixed.”
They also praised the administration for the handling of the exit strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Rove ripped Obama’s treatment of Israel — calling it ham-handed.
“We seem to be tougher on our friends than we are on our adversaries.”
Dean said Obama is now talking about issuing a Mideast peace plan to help stabilize the region. “We cannot afford to stay at a deadlock,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time left particularly if the Iranians end up with the bomb.”
Rove said no peace agreement created by the Americans will work. It has to come from both sides.
Both men handicapped the November election, with both predicting the deficit and economy would be the top issue. Rove said the Democrats would lose anywhere from 30 to 41 seats in the House of Representatives. Rove thought the GOP could pick up as many as 10 seats in the Senate, giving them control of that body.
Dean acknowledged it would be a tough race for Democrats, forecasting a “tough, close election.”
“I hope we do a better job shaping our message for the election than we did with the health-care bill,” he said.
Rove offered to wager that three times as many incumbent Democrats will be defeated as Republican incumbents with the winner having to donate $1,000 to a University at Albany scholarship. Dean demurred, prompting Rove to state, “I know you’re a cheapskate Howard.” Dean responded: “Democrats are always much more careful about their money.”
Rove shot back, “It’s other people’s money they’re free with.”
The audience picked up on the rapport.
“We had the opportunity to see them enjoying each other’s presence,” said Elliot Luscombe of Albany, a first-year graduate student. “Normally, the public only sees them at each other’s throats.”
About 20 protesters from the Albany County Green Party and SUNY Campus Greens stood outside the arena, holding signs like “Rove Lied. People Died” and chanting “Money for jobs and education. Not war and occupation.”
Peter LaVenia of Albany, a graduate student and co-chair of the New York Green party, said he is unhappy that Rove spoke because he led the effort to drum up propaganda to justify the invasion of Iraq. “That violates international law. We think Rove should be arrested and tried for war crimes.”
Jonathan Nash of Albany, also a graduate student, objected to the expense to bring both speakers.
“We would rather see the student association spend our money on education rather than PR events such as this,” he said.
Student Association President Joshua Sussman has declined comment to the media about the cost of the speakers’ visit.