Jason Starr (left), Dylan Lambert (center) and Patrick Shell (right) debate policies from current U.S. presidential candidates at the BreezeTV studio.

Student representatives for the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties had a fierce battle over presidential candidates’ policies Wednesday night at the sixth annual Dukes Debate in the BreezeTV studio.

Jason Starr, a junior political science and studio art double major, represented the Democratic party, while Patrick Schell, a senior history major, represented the Republicans. This was the first year the Libertarian party, represented by Dylan Lambert, a freshman history major was represented at the debate. The addition came as a result of the Libertarian Party having a spot on Virginia’s ballot this year. 

The event was live-streamed on Facebook and was moderated by Zach Hill, a senior media arts and design major and BTV chief political correspondent. It kicked off with discussions on healthcare and COVID-19, an issue that’s relevant to JMU students and individuals across the country. 

Schell started off highlighting President Trump’s response to the pandemic, calling it a “holistic approach.” He said that Trump gave assistance to state and local governments, but that these governments played a vital role in their responses to COVID-19.

Lambert compared the U.S.’ COVID-19 response to New Zealand and South Korea, saying that by allowing only two companies to produce tests, the U.S. lagged in testing.

“It just baffles me that we couldn’t have some private company running the show on this,” Lambert said. “Just because they make money on doing something that is important, doesn’t mean that it’s evil.”

Starr, on the other hand, attacked Trump’s response to COVID-19. He called it a “failure,” saying Trump “endangered others with his own diagnoses of the disease.” Starr offered former Vice President Biden’s plan to battle the pandemic, including a vaccine distribution plan and mask mandates. 

Both Lambert and Schell countered a national mask mandate point by saying that individuals should be allowed to make that decision for themselves.

“We’re not giving the American people enough credit here,” Schell said. “If they feel like they need to wear a mask, then they should wear a mask.”

The student representatives also covered the economy, focusing on revitalizing the economy after COVID-19, the debate over minimum wage and college affordability. 

Starr shared Biden’s plan to create jobs through green energy, invest in the middle class and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He said that Trump’s tax cuts only benefit the wealthy and add to the nation’s budget deficit. 

“Joe Biden has a plan,” Starr said. “To build an economy that is sustainable and that works for everyone, not just those at the top.”

Schell said it was important to discuss what Trump has already done, and that the U.S. was on a “v-shaped recovery.” He said that unemployment was down and that there were job gains in leisure, hospitality, social assistance and business services, through Trump’s economic policies that “opened up the free market.”

Lambert said that raising the minimum wage would only increase inflation and “destroy the economy,” a point that Schell later reiterated. Lambert also said the federal government was taking too much money from Americans.

“They’re taking money from our pocket; taxation is just taking money from the people and giving it to the national government,” Lambert said. “The best way to cut the fund is to stop government spending.” 

All three representatives agreed that college expenses are far too high, but they disagreed on how to solve the issue. Starr said that Biden is pushing for student loan forgiveness and free community college, saying he had the policies to address the “crisis,” while Trump doesn’t. 

“We should not be starting off these young people at the very bottom having to pay their way out,” Starr said. 

Both Lambert and Schell said that college was a “scam,” pointing at jobs that earn high wages like electricians and welders. Lambert mentioned that a reduction in university enrollment could drive down the costs of post-secondary education. Schell offered up Trump’s plan, saying he would ensure students would only have to pay a certain amount of their income on loans before they would start to be forgiven.  

The debate covered racial injustice as well, with Starr starting out with Biden’s policies for ending mass incarceration, investing in low-income areas, decriminalizing marijuana and community-oriented policing. Starr said that Trump “has done nothing but fuel systemic racism and create division in our country.”

Schell said that Trump’s “Platinum Plan” would condemn the KKK as a domestic terrorist group. He also defended Trump’s comments about Charlottesville, saying that Trump said he wasn’t talking about white supremacists, just those “who just wanted to stand for their freedoms.” Schell said that Trump has been a large supporter of the First Step program, which allows those convicted of a crime to get a job.

Lambert said that racism was a bipartisan issue and pointed out flaws within both parties, including that Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, prosecuted a large number of cases on marijuana, that white supremacists support Donald Trump and the issue of gerrymandering in both parties.

“We need to be together on this issue, not separate,” Lambert said. 

After tackling several other topics like climate change, the U.S. Supreme Court, guns and immigration, the representatives ended the night with their closing arguments. Each appealed to vote for their party in the upcoming election.

“I think what we can all do now is decide to … vote,” Starr said. “Go out to the polls and vote, it’s how we can make our difference.”

Contact Ashlyn Campbell at campbeab@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.