Students may have been surprised in the second week of April to find in their inboxes invitations to a political debate “where liberals argue for the Bush tax cuts and conservatives want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.”

But the description of the event was no typo: It was a preview of the “Freaky Friday” scenario of the “Backwards Debate,” an event co-sponsored by the Princeton Progressive Nation, College Democrats, College Republicans, P-Board, and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students.  

In the debate — which drew about 40 students to the Whig Senate Chamber — Democrats Jason Anton ’10 and Daniel Rauch ’10 pretended to be conservatives, while Republicans Johnny Love ’09 and Brian Stephan ’11 played the part of liberals. The two groups answered questions posed by moderator Evan Thomas, Newsweek editor-at-large and Ferris Professor of Journalism, on social issues, foreign policy, and the economy.

Much of the debate echoed talking points heard in the current presidential race. “Over the past few months we’ve seen remarkable progress in Iraq,” argued ersatz conservative Rauch.

“Political progress has been minuscule and superficial at best,” responded Love. “We need to stop imposing our Western ideals on these people.” 

Most of the debate continued in the same vein, with serious, thoughtful replies (James Coan ’09, editor-in-chief of Princeton Progressive Nation, commented that the debaters were so well-prepared that their notes contained “all of Wikipedia”). Still, the debaters found opportunities to insert humor and poke fun at the positions that they were pretending to defend. 

“We should sit down with [Iranian president] Ahmadinejad,” said Love. “He knows that he should not mess with the United States,” he added, drawing chuckles from the audience. 

Rauch’s reply, in turn, drew a wave of laughter: “You’re committing the fallacy that if we get these people to talk, they’ll be as responsive as the people at your ecological yoga class.” 

Anton said that despite the teasing in the debate (at one point he told Love that he has “a very apt name for a bleeding-heart liberal”), the event helped him understand conservative rhetoric. “It’s interesting to understand the logic behind opposite views,” he explained. “It breeds respect for your opponents.” 

But have no fear, College Democrats: Anton was quick to add that he remains a liberal.