Sadly, you could also title this article “The Most Important Questions That Need to be Asked.” Today, our debates are merely a stage upon which candidates can exchange quips or attempt to act presidential. Most important issues are never discussed and those mentioned have little depth.
Before we list some of the questions that should be asked, a brief history of national debates is required. When historians cite the classic debate style, they are usually referring to a series of US Senate debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. In that case, each debate was typically three hours long, with the candidates delivering lengthy policy speeches.
While three hours was the norm, in at least one instance in 1854, Lincoln and Douglass debated for a total of seven hours. Douglass went first, delivering a three hour policy speech, followed by another three hour speech by Lincoln. The debate concluded with a relatively brief one hour rebut from Douglass. These debates were closely read throughout the nation and eventually lead to Lincoln’s nomination for President in 1860.
How many among us can tolerate an hour and a half debate between President Obama and Governor Romney? Imagine how many read the debates the next day and critiqued each argument with a critical mind. The reduction in our collective attention span is apparent. Now, responses to questions are limited to two minutes, with rebuts limited to one minute. Of course, the contempt for lengthy explanations can be explained by our collapsing intellect and patience, but that is only a partial answer. The soundbite culture represents a societal contempt for truth itself.
Not only are the responses briefer than ever, but the questions are shallow and often irrelevant. This is not accidental. It should come as no surprise that the debate system itself has been co-opted by the establishment to maintain a tightly controlled message and ensure that no outside entities can siphon votes and power away from the two main parties.
Prior to 1988, the League of Women Voters administered most of the presidential debates but that year refused to because of the increasing demands of the two parties to control the debates. In a press release announcing they would refuse to moderate the debate, the League of Women Voters said:
“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Today, the debates are run by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. As a 501(c)(3) charity, it enjoys tax protections similar to those provided to churches and educational groups, but it also allows them the ability to shield their donors. Open Secrets does have a partial list, most notably including beer manufacturer Anheuser-Busch.
In summary, both parties and the corporations that fund them have a clear incentive to distort, confuse and as we’ve seen, outright lie to the voters. Their efforts to do so have extended to the national debates where questions are simple and purposely brief, least a candidate’s lies be exposed.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the League of Women’s Voters was operating on behalf of the public, asking questions they knew needed answers. The debate was shaped around those questions, rather than the questions being shaped around a narrative.
A transcript of the recent debate shows how the moderator was essentially unable to ask any question at all. Instead, Jim Lehrer merely asked each candidate to explain their position. Here are a few examples:
(To Obama:) Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?… (To Romney:) You want the Affordable Care Act repealed. Why?… (To Obama:) Do you believe there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government? (To Romney:) Does the federal government have a responsibility to improve the quality of public education in America?
These questions are constructed in such a way as to allow candidates to retreat into their predetermined cliches and talking points. While it isn’t necessary to trap or trip up candidates with difficult questions, difficult or not, questions that actually address real issues are necessary.
To that end, we have composed this brief list of questions that should have been asked of our candidates, not because they are difficult to answer, but rather because they represent the true issues facing the country. Unlike the recent debate, we haven’t limited ourselves to the economy. In no particular order:
1) Last week was the four year anniversary of the controversial TARP program, which authorized the use of billions of taxpayer dollars to bailout troubled banking institutions. If the country suffers another financial crisis similar to the one in 2008, would you authorize a similar bailout?
2) Late last year, the president signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. It allows the government to indefinitely imprison anyone, including American citizens, suspected of committing a “belligerent act,” without trial or access to a lawyer. Is this in keeping with our values as a nation?
3) Last month, the Federal Reserve announced that it would continue the controversial practice of quantitative easing, a practice defined as introducing new money into the economy. Do you support this practice, and if (re)elected, would you reappoint Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke?
4) The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if current trends continue, federal spending on health care will double from about $800 billion to $1.6 trillion a year within the next seven years. How can politicians promise that current recipients will not see reductions in their benefits if costs are increasing so rapidly?
5) The use of assassin drones in the middle east is very controversial especially within the nations targeted such as Pakistan. Does the United States have the authority to bomb these nations without a congressional declaration of war?
6) Since 9-11, the NSA has conducted warrantless wiretaps on American citizens and is collecting phone calls, emails and photographs of American citizens. How is this reconciled with the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution?
7) The amount of corporate money in political campaigns has increased dramatically in recent election cycles. What would you do to limit corporate influence in the nation’s capital?
These are what proper debate questions look like. They all maintain a respectful tone. None of these are tricky, “gotcha” questions or based on conspiracy theories. They’re reasonable discussions we should and would be having if we were not infantilized by scripted media designed to control the discussion. They could all be conceivably asked in an independently administered debate. Of course, most informed people have immediate reactions to these questions which go directly against the government’s wishes. That is why they’ll never be asked.
It’s hard to imagine the questioning ever being allowed to be more aggressive than these, but in a fair system, the questions would be far tougher. All sorts of issues would be on the table including the failed drug war, monopoly protections for big pharma, the health effects of genetically modified food, the growing influence of for profit prisons, and on and on it goes.