Organizers billed last Wednesday’s Blair Debate as a dispute between former Massachusetts governor William Weld and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. over the topic “What is government good for?” But many audience members concluded that the participants were far less polarized over the issues than had been anticipated.
An estimated 350 people attended the debate, the majority of them citizens from the community.
Williams launched the Blair Debate series in 1993, and it has continued as a result of gifts of Thomas Blair ’43 and the sponsorship of the Oakley Center for Humanities and Social Sciences. The purpose of the debate series is to illuminate opposing views of contemporary issues and foster increased political discussion among Williams students. Professor of Political Science Tim Cook moderated the debate.
The format of the debate featured 12-15 minute opening statements followed by two rebuttal periods of three to five minutes each. A half an hour of questions from the audience followed the participants’ eight to 10 minute closing remarks
Forsaking the traditional coin flip, the guests agreed that Weld would begin.
Although Weld was billed as the anti-government contestant in the debate, he opened with a discussion of the positive aspects of a democratic government.
“Weld disarmed Dionne, and perhaps the audience, by opening with statements about what government is good for and not saying very much about the dangers or proper limitations of government,” said Professor of Classics Meredith Hoppin, the director of the Oakley Center.
Dionne began his opening statement by observing that he would be “arguing against a popular anti-government view.”
But Weld’s refusal to endorse this anti-government view in his opening statement left Dionne “wrestling with a straw man,” according to Hoppin.
Early on in the debate, Weld aligned himself with social progressivism, coming out in support of affirmative action and free immigration. Yet Weld asserted that the disparity between his conservative fiscal views and his liberal social views is a misperception.
“I want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom,” he said. “I think it’s the religious right that is more inconsistent on this issue.”
Weld attempted to keep the debate contentious by focusing on economic policy. But ultimately the brunt of his criticism fell on what he called “the loony right.”
Cook described Weld’s criticism of his party as “a campaign for a different Republican Party than what exists today.”
Throughout the debate, Dionne echoed Weld’s continued criticism of the Republican Party, adding to the sense that the two debaters were not really in conflict.
Both debaters had similarly moderate responses to issues such as wage and price controls and corporate welfare. They denounced too much government intervention in the economy and affirmed the importance of a balance of power between government and private corporations.
“Who knows, maybe E.J. and I will run on a fusion ticket,” said Weld.
Weld focused his criticism of the Republican Party on the growing regionalization of the GOP.
“Some of the [local politicians] inferred from this that Weld may be thinking about organizing some sort of third party movement to reform the Republican Party,” said Hoppin.
However, Dionne opined that the formation of a viable third party in the near future is unlikely. “Historically third parties are only effective when there’s a huge issue that the major parties aren’t addressing.” he said. “For now I don’t see where that third party would come from.”
Dionne asserted that good government is invisible and that “government is an enemy until you need a friend.” As evidence he cited shifting attitudes toward health care, environmental regulations and work safety regulations.
He demonstrated his point by quoting a conservative campaigner who said, “I want the government to keep its hands off of my Medicare.”
Dionne continually praised the progressives who reformed American politics from 1890 to 1920.
“We have to reject the pretend politics that claims it will be possible to wipe away all government,” he said.
Dionne said he opts for a more practical approach to politics.
“Let’s have an argument about how we can use the government better rather than an argument about dismantling government that’s never going to come to pass,” he said.
Background of the debaters
Weld resigned as governor to be President Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Mexico in 1997, only to lose the nomination after House Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms blocked the process.
Weld has ruled out a run at the presidency in 2000, but has said he is leaving the option open for 2004.
Cook said he doubts that Weld has enough partisan support at the moment to earn a nomination “for anything” from a major party, but added that he believes the ex-governor’s continued activity in the public sphere has no ulterior motive.
“Former governmental officials are also finding a way to keep themselves visible, normally because they have ideas that they want to share,” Cook said.
Dionne wrote for the New York Times for 14 years before joining the Post in 1990. He has written several books, most recently They’re Not Dead Yet: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Cycle.
Weld himself released his first book, Mackerel by Moonlight, in September. A sequel to this political novel is on the way, and will feature personal comments on last year’s feud with Helms.
Audience response to the debate
Organizers of the event said they were not displeased by the non-contentious tone of the debate, which Cook characterized as “friendly.”
“It certainly wasn’t a ‘Crossfires’ affair, which was fine by me since I don’t see such exchanges as very productive,” said Hoppin.
Hoppin praised both Weld and Dionne for not resorting to name-calling.
“We didn’t need dramatic underlining and hostile posturing,” she said.
Dionne said the friendliness of the debate somewhat surprised him.
“It wasn’t as sharply drawn as I expected,” he said. “I knew Governor Weld was a moderate on social issues, but he was more moderate than I had remembered on the role of government generally.”
However, students who expected to see punches fly left the debate disappointed.
“They both took very reasonable moderate views that make a lot of sense, but it didn’t necessarily make for a contentious and interesting debate,” said Kristin Wikelius ’01.
Raphael Rosen ’00 said although Weld and Dionne shared many of the same views, their approach to the topic was different. “Dionne took a more theoretical perspective while Weld approached the question as a former politician with governmental experience,” he said. “I enjoyed Dionne’s insight that the media has confused a liberal government with a totalitarian state.”
Morgan Barth ’02 said his primary disappointment was that more students didn’t attend the event.
“It’s great that both Governor Weld and Dionne came to campus. They’re both very interesting people,” he said. “But I was sort of sorry to see that senior citizens from the community outnumbered students. It would be nice to see more student interest in these types of things.”