UCSB Campus Democrats and College Republicans held a lively debate yesterday evening, which marked the first time in several years that the two groups officially sat down to hash out controversial issues.

About 70 people attended the debate, held at in the San Miguel Residence Hall recreation room. Students from campus groups as well as individuals attended the discussion. San Miguel resident assistant and event organizer Erin Perez moderated the event, which consisted of eight speakers – four per party. The war in Iraq, universal healthcare and workers’ rights were all issues on the table, with questions coming from both a prepared set and audience submissions.

One of the first queries posed to the Republican delegation asked them to justify the war in Iraq in the face of growing public disapproval, the President’s decreasing approval rating, increasing troop fatalities and U.S. military commanders’ calls for withdrawal.

Republican panel member Cliff Holt, a third-year business economics and history major, responded by arguing that a withdrawal would empower terrorists in the region.

“If we pull out now it will be an open opportunity for [the terrorists] to come in and make things worse than they already were,” Holt said. “Also, Congress’ approval rating is even lower than the President’s so I don’t know what Congress is trying to pull by taking away war powers and saying we should pull out.”

In a rebuttal, Democratic panel member Will Nguyen said the U.S. should not continue to sustain casualties in light of the conflict’s political nature.

“Every step of the way, casualties have increased despite fluctuating troop surges. The war in Iraq is a civil war and our troops cannot continue to baby-sit what is essentially a political conflict,” he said.

After discussing the war, the debate shifted to domestic concerns, specifically the idea of a universal healthcare program to cover the 47 million Americans that do not have health insurance.

Republican panel member Dan Duran, a second-year law and society and business economics major, said he is against a universal healthcare program.

“Of the 15 percent of Americans who do not have health insurance, 33 percent of those make over $50,000 a year and can definitely afford their health insurance,” Duran said. “Another 25 percent of the people without health insurance have the ability to get coverage through the government healthcare program; they are just not taking advantage of it.”

Duran also said that if the U.S. adopts a universal healthcare program, patients will be forced to wait for hospital and emergency room visits, which he said occurs in Canada where a universal healthcare program is already in place.

Democratic panel member Patrick Donahoe, a third-year political science major, balked at the Republican view, saying his counterparts did not understand the proposed policy, which offers voluntary participation.

“A government-sponsored universal healthcare program will cause private insurance companies to lower their rates,” Donahoe said. “It gives people a choice, if they are happy with their HMO they can keep it. They can choose the government program only if they want to.”

In perhaps the most fiercely fought topic of the night, Democratic panel member Hillary Blackerby, a fourth-year dramatic art major, defended recent federal minimum wage increases, claiming that both the direct beneficiaries of the law as well as their employers profit. She argued that well-paid workers, and thus happier workers, lead to greater productivity. Yet she stated that further increases might be necessary.

“A minimum wage is not a living wage; a living wage is much more important. Many people on minimum wage do not earn enough to support their family,” she said.

But Holt struck back against Blackerby’s point, saying that American businesses will fire staff members if the cost of keeping them rises too much.

“If you force a minimum wage you force some people out of jobs since companies have to pay their workers more,” he said.

Although the Democrats and Republicans disagreed on most topics they discussed, in the end they agreed that having an opportunity to debate their positions was beneficial to both sides.

“It is great to have a forum where [students] can address our beliefs. Other campuses do not address these issues at all and they are marginalized to speakers and professors,” said Republican panel member Ross Nolan, a second-year political science and Slavic studies major. “No matter where you stand on the issues it is good to be informed when making decisions.”