Julian Zelizer: The Debate Questions We Need to Hear

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II.]

The debates are starting. As I recently wrote in Politico, given the close nature of this presidential race, the debates can easily end up having the same impact as the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debates in October 1980, when Reagan's stellar performance pushed him ahead in the polls.

But one of the most frustrating aspects of the debates is how many questions won't be asked. During the final months of the campaign, reporters tend to focus on a handful of issues. While most of these are important (though certainly not all, as we saw with the "lipstick on a pig" controversy), the compressed time frame of television news and the scramble to be the first on the "hot" issue of the day inevitably results in too many issues being squeezed out of the picture.

Focusing on some key questions that do not always get a lot of attention would allow voters to evaluate the candidates more accurately and would push the candidates to answer questions that are outside of their comfort zone.

For the purposes of starting a conversation, let me throw out four issues we need to hear more about.

Homeland Security: One of the most remarkable aspects of this campaign has been how little attention has been focused on homeland security. It seems almost inconceivable after 9/11 that presidential candidates are not asked to devote more of their time to this matter. When the attacks occurred in 2001, we learned how vulnerable the nation was to terrorism and how little the government had done to protect the populace. As a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, public attention was quickly diverted to foreign policy. The nation's initial debate over issues such as airport security, baggage screening, ports, "soft" terrorist targets, and more fell to the wayside.

Obama and McCain should be pressed during the debates on this issue. They can be asked about what the administration has done well since 9/11 and where it has fallen short. Where are we most vulnerable? What is the proper balance between civil liberties and federal surveillance? Where should the government focus its budgetary and manpower resources in the next four years to make sure the nation is safer? Who should handle these operations, private contractors or civil servants?

Presidential and Vice Presidential Power: The reporter Charlie Savage brilliantly recounted how the expansion of presidential power has been a central goal of the Bush administration, and not just on questions of national security. This was true before 9/11, but President Bush's ability to expand the reach of the office increased dramatically after the crisis. During the past eight years, we have seen how the president has flexed his muscle by using a wide variety of tools, such as signing statements that circumvent the legislative will and surveillance policies that directly ignore FISA regulations.

The candidates, both legislators, have been silent about executive power and yet reporters have not even bothered to ask. This is one of the central issues of our time. The questioners at the debates should ask candidates to be clear on how they would continue to expand or seek to roll back executive power, how they view the recent historic Supreme Court cases like Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), what steps they might take to restore the strength of the legislative branch, what the balance of power should be between the branches of government, and what are the appropriate limits of presidential power.

Additionally, we have also seen how the power of the vice presidency has increased, nearly exponentially. This is not a unique phenomenon to Richard Cheney, since the vice president has become more of a policymaker and political force since the 1970s beginning with Walter Mondale. But with Cheney's role in shaping national security and energy policy, he has greatly strengthened the institution.

Yet too many of us don't actually know how the candidates would answer Governor Palin's now famous question: "What is it exactly that the VP does every day?" We have heard almost nothing about what role the office would play in either administration and what specific reforms might be undertaken to limit the influence of whoever holds this position.

Making Post-Partisan Politics Real: Earlier in the campaign, there was a lot of talk from both
candidates about the possibility of post-partisan politics. This campaign has shown how such promises vanish very quickly. In the long run, there is little reason to believe that we can move beyond partisanship and polarization because the current rancorous environment is caused by broad political forces rather than by any single politician or faction. The factors include the decline of centrists in Congress, the presidential nomination process, gerrymandered districts, the 24 hour instantaneous media, and the power of interest groups in the campaign process.

While it will be almost impossible to eliminate all these factors, it would be helpful to hear from the candidates about what they specifically hope to do to promote bipartisan agreement and negotiation. Beyond talking with the other side, which rarely works, Obama and McCain should be asked to specify how they would deal with the different forces causing polarization and what concrete steps they would take to change the way Washington works. Campaign finance and lobbying reform, for instance, has been a relatively unexamined topic, despite the fact that both candidates are allegedly promising real change in Washington. Whereas both men had made bold statements about not relying on independent organizations to broadcast ads to help their campaigns, the promises seem hollow in recent weeks. But reform is not impossible. There have been moments, like the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, when government reform was front and center because there was a realization that changing the way Washington works was necessary in order to produce better political results.

The Rest of the World: We have focused so much attention on Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Russia that we don't really know how the foreign policy of these two candidates compares in other countries and regions. Foreign policy experts have been pointing to very important changes taking place in Asia, for instance, where the economic power of China has grown and there have been many significant changes in U.S.-Japanese relations. The candidates have said nothing about the direction of U.S.-India relations and what role India might play as an ally in Southeast Asia. For all we know (though it is doubtful), the two candidates could share the same foreign policy strategies in these regions or their policies could be diametrically opposed. We simply don't know, because they haven't been asked.

Frankly, a voter would not even know these parts of the world existed based on most of the questions that have been asked of candidates. The rest of the world will matter, and it can matter a great deal. Americans in the 1990s learned with Afghanistan what happens when we don't pressure candidates and policymakers to keep their eyes roving around the globe. How will they respond to the growing role of Chinese economic power and how will they create more pressure for human rights? During the presidential debates, we need to hear more from the candidates about how they see American relations outside the hot spots.

These are just a handful of the issues that should be raised in the debates. But this is a historic time for America and the candidates should not be allowed to get away with just answering a small set of questions.

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