Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at a campaign house party last week in Salem, N.H. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Opinion writer

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) says what’s wrong with the United States is that the rich and powerful have “rigged” the system. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) says what’s wrong with the United States is capitalism. South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg says what’s wrong with the United States is a generational failure (he’s talking about you guys, baby boomers).

From each diagnosis a plan of action follows. For Warren, it’s fundamental ethics reform, which then can allow popular opinion on everything from taxing the rich to gun regulation to prevail. Sanders wants to disempower private enterprise and grow the public sector, which he thinks will result in less stratification. And Buttigieg essentially wants to push older politicians out and let younger leaders look at long-term problems that threaten their future.

You can agree or disagree with each candidate’s diagnosis, but at least they have one — as well as a set of ideas that address that diagnosis. This, I would suggest, is the most fundamental obligation of presidential candidates: Tell us what they think is wrong — and maybe it’s simply dumping President Trump — and then lay out (in whatever detail they are able) the response.

When Beto O’Rourke says we’re too divided, he is making an observation but not telling us what’s wrong. Are we too divided because of insufficient leadership (the solution to which is the nebulous “bringing us together”)? Do we not have a shared purpose (which might be fostered by programs such as national service), or is the problem closer to home in the withering of community life (which might be ameliorated by spurring volunteerism or devolving power to local entities)? If his answers seem fuzzy, it might be that he really hasn’t thought through the cause of what he thinks is wrong. If you don’t do that, it’s hard to come up with a vision for how to fix it.

In an effort, however vain, to inject some serious conversation into the presidential race, interviewers and debate moderators should ask some serious, probing questions:

  • What do you think is wrong with the status quo?
  • What’s the cause of what ails us?
  • What’s the mechanism by which we are going to fix it (e.g. changing the size of government, changing the mission of government, changing our constitutional system, changing who runs government)?
  • What are your four or five big ideas that, with the proper mechanism and the proper leadership, can be enacted to address what’s wrong with the status quo?

Maybe it’s income inequality that is the major culprit. A candidate might explain that globalization, the shift to a digital economy and elite self-selection (in marriage, education and elsewhere) are how we got to the chasm between the rich and everyone else. Solutions might include: a restructuring of the tax code; a go-green initiative aimed at creating high-paying jobs; a substantial increase in the earned-income tax credit, combined with a regional minimum wage (automatically rising with the local cost of living) and an effort to force colleges and universities to democratize their selection process (e.g. taking away tax-exempt status if they do not address income inequality in admissions, requiring online degrees for institutions that receive government contracts or whose students receive federal student aid).

Candidates, in other words, cannot be allowed to get by on mush. They need to set out a clear vision of what’s wrong and how they intend to fix it. If they haven’t thought deeply about systemic challenges and appropriate solutions, they don’t have any business running for president.

The same is true when it comes to foreign policy:

  • What’s the most fundamental problem with our foreign policy?
  • What’s the cause?
  • By what mechanism (e.g. redressing the balance between the executive and legislative branches, forging new alliances, expanding soft-power tools) do we fix the problem?
  • What are four or five concrete ways to address what’s wrong?

A candidate might think the problem is endless wars, brought on by shriveling of controls on executive use of force and solved by a revamp of the War Powers Act so that we end major military action in Afghanistan, cut off support for the Saudis’ war in Yemen and set firm limits on future military action.

Another candidate might think the problem is the threat from reenergized illiberal regimes, caused by insufficient cooperation with allies and inattention to asymmetric warfare. That candidate might think a new initiative (domestically by legislation and diplomatically by engaging allies) to respond to international disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks and kleptocratic regimes is required. The objectives would be to push back on economic and military aggression by China and Russia, to protect American intellectual property and innovation, and to pressure nondemocratic regimes to respect universal human rights.

Certainly there can be multiple diagnoses and a variety of causes and solutions, but even one of each would be welcomed. Candidates should be compelled to set out a clear vision, coupled with a logical approach to address identified problems. Unless voters and the media demand serious analysis and creative policy formulation, we’re going to have another dumbed-down campaign and wind up electing someone who lacks the vision and intellectual heft to address problems that are not amenable to bumper-stick solutions.

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