In the waning days of the election season, Franklin & Marshall College hosted two panels on presidential politics that brought together influential alumni to provide insights into the changing tide of the race.
Two packed houses of alumni, parents and friends of F&M gathered first in New York in early October and more recently Oct. 23 in Washington, D.C., to listen to four alumni of national stature engage in lively debate as they analyzed the final days of the presidential race. The speakers included a former U.S. representative; an alumnus who was the chief strategist for the re-election of George W. Bush; the late President Ronald Reagan's chief of staff; and the former general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives under the late Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr.
A highlights video of the "Franklin & Marshall Forum on Presidential Politics" held at the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., captures a wide-ranging discussion (a full-length video of the panel discussion also is online). The panelists explored what factors might contribute to an eventual win or loss for either candidate, President Barack Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while the focus of the earlier Oct. 4 forum in New York City was more squarely the factors that might contribute to an eventual victory for either candidate.
"The study of government and politics has been one of Franklin & Marshall's strengths for a long time," said G. Terry Madonna, the moderator of the panel and director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and the Center for Politics and Public Affairs. "So the College has a whole host of alums who go out into the world, they work in government, they become part of campaigns, they become part of the democratic fabric, and that's extremely important."
Madonna said the events, hosted by the College's Office of Advancement, offered the audience unique perspectives of alumni who have participated in politics firsthand.
"We have a group of alumni folks who have tremendous experience in government," he said, which allows the audience to "gain insights into the campaign, and insights into voters, and into how candidates think and what they're trying to do that you might not get elsewhere."
The panels this campaign season were a revival of a series of similar forums held during the 2008 election. More than 450 alumni, parents and friends of F&M attended the New York panel this year, and an estimated 250 attended the D.C. event.
Kenneth M. Duberstein '65, a political consultant who was Reagan's chief of staff, sparked a round of discussion by saying that Romney at one time had a significant "accessibility threshold" to overcome, which he accomplished in the first presidential debate held Oct. 3.
"He got over the hump of acceptability," Duberstein said. "It's something that I call the bedroom test: Who do you want to wake up with on your TV, or go to sleep with on your TV at 11 o'clock at night? And until the first debate, people were saying, 'Well probably, Obama.' And now they're saying, 'Well, that guy Romney is OK.'"
"I don't want to wake up with either one," quipped William H. Gray III '63. "I love my wife."
The third-highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1991, Gray countered Madonna's opening question that asked what factors or attributes would be credited to helping either candidate win.
"What would be the reason Obama loses? What would be the reason Romney loses?" Gray posited instead.
For Obama, it would be the economy, and for Romney it would be the length of the primary, during which he was forced to prove his conservatism, Gray said.
This evolved into a discussion later in the evening about the role of political advertising in the presidential race, which polls have characterized as a dead heat.
"There has been a human cry across the United States about too much money in politics," said Stanley Brand '70, a College trustee who served as general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives under Democratic speaker O'Neill from 1976 to 1983. "My view is there is no empirical data that links [campaign spending] to causation of a candidate winning an election."
Kenneth Mehlman '88, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign director for the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney ticket in 2004, shared similar sentiments in questioning the influence of political advertising.
"In a world where people don't watch what's put in front of them, money means less in an election," said Mehlman, a partner in a financial services firm in New York. He explained that now that potential voters have access to YouTube and other media aside from network TV, "the value of the money people put into campaigns is less than it's ever been."
Many in the audience in D.C. said the forums exemplified what F&M represents -- continued learning beyond a student's years at F&M.
"I think that this is one of the most important elections of our time, and I want to make sure that I make as an informed a decision as possible," said Andrew Marshall '05, who was an English and Spanish double major at F&M. "And given that we do have the credentialed political alumni associated with the College, I want to make sure that I take advantage of whatever learning opportunities are afforded to me by F&M."
Stacey Thal '80, who attended with her husband, Raymond Thal '80, decided to repeat her participation in the 2008 events. "I thought it was great and enlightening and entertaining and wanted to come again," she said.
For Deborah Routt, whose son is a current senior at F&M, the forum presented an opportunity to meet other members of the College's extended family.
"We just enjoy participating in the events," Routt said. "It's how we got to meet the new president and other members of the faculty. It's a great way to meet people and also stay current on issues."