It might not have had the shenanigans of a presidential debate, but Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin’s (D-District 20) visit to Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville last week featured a spirited discussion about the election, the Constitution and political controversy.
“To put my cards on the table, I am a Democrat. But since we are here in a bipartisan, multi-partisan spirit, I wanted to start by invoking our last great Republican president — Abraham Lincoln,” he joked to 200 Upper School students at the Modern Orthodox school.
Raskin, who will face off against Republican Dan Cox in the Nov. 8 election to fill Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-Md.) District 8 congressional seat, spent the morning of Oct. 14 answering questions — including from senior Zach Goldberg.
The student asked whether the Democratic Party is looking out for Israel’s best interest.
Raskin said his party is committed to solving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and moving toward a two-state solution. He added that he has cousins in Israel and that he is “deeply bound up with and committed to the security and the prosperity of the state of Israel.”
Senior Jonah Riffkin asked Raskin what is his solution to rising health insurance premiums. Raskin said the Affordable Care Act, while accomplishing the goal of providing health insurance to all, still leaves much to be desired.
“We spend 30 or 32 cents on the dollar in red-tape administrative expenses, fighting with insurance companies and so forth,” he said. “It doesn’t really work.”
Raskin said a single-payer insurance system, such as Canada’s, would be most effective, and that the model has been adopted by “most of the civilized world.”
Later, Riffkin, 17, told Washington Jewish Week that he is a conservative and disagrees with Raskin’s single-payer solution, but appreciates Raskin’s passion for policy.
“I think it’s a big thing to actually believe in what you’re doing and not in it for the game and the power,” Riffkin said. “I liked the fact that he was willing to stand up for what he believes in on a moral level.”
Most of Raskin’s listeners are too young to vote this year. Even so, Goldberg said, as a liberal, he was fired up by Raskin’s lecture.
“It tears me apart every day that I can’t vote, but I still believe that I can do everything I can to influence what happens in this election,” he said.
Raskin had a strong answer to a student who identified as a Libertarian and asked if he thinks voters should vote “party over principle or principle over party?”
“Speaking from a partisan perspective I would beseech you to be realistic and strategic in what you’re doing,” Raskin said.
Raskin noted that voting one’s conscience can have long-term ramifications, as it did in 2000. More than 90,000 people in Florida voted for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, helping swing the election to Republican George W. Bush.
“I think voting is collective strategic behavior rather than individual aesthetic behavior,” he said. “If you want to write a poem about your politics, write a poem. But when you get in the voting booth you have to think strategically.”
Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University, also spoke to 60 10th grade students about the 14th Amendment and how the Supreme Court gradually shifted from the idea of “separate but equal” for different races to full integration in society.
Toward the end of the class, the discussion shifted to the recent debate over same-sex marriage, legalized by a Supreme Court decision last year. A male student passionately argued against same-sex marriage, stating that it was immoral and should be illegal because God did not approve of it.
“The Torah is very explicit that gay sex is forbidden so saying you should modernize or accept it is completely wrong,” he said.
A female student then pointed out that the Constitution allows for religious freedom as long as it does not infringe on secular interests.
“If you think that gay marriage is wrong and someone else is doing it, you don’t have the right to prevent them from doing that because it’s not what religious freedom is,” she said.
Raskin pointed out that LGBT rights were not on the minds of the framers of the Constitution, and that because of changing social norms, same-sex marriage has become a more prominent issue. As a result the laws of the United States have shifted with the times, he said.
“Gay and lesbian people are just looked at very differently in 2016 than they were in 1986 when the Supreme Court not only did not strike down the laws against gay marriage but upheld laws making it a crime for gay people to have sex with each other,” he said.
Raskin said that same-sex marriage, like other things, can be offensive to some, but that “everybody doesn’t like one kind of speech, everyone wants to take a bite out of that apple and pretty soon everyone takes a bite and there’s nothing left. So in free speech, you’ve got to defend all of it.”
This concept, he said, was summed up by comedian Lenny Bruce’s retort to a critic. Bruce, Raskin said, gave this response: “My parents came to America to be offensive and not get thrown into jail.”