The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Democratic debates can offer clarity

Twenty 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who will participate in the party's first debates in Miami next week. (Reuters) (Reuters File Photo/Reuters)
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The Democratic Party’s presidential primary debates next week are likely to be dominated by political posturing, parsing and pandering. But they don’t have to be that way. The debates, or at least a portion of them, could be quick and informative and not just filled with tiresome deflections such as “let’s have a conversation.”

Voters should be allowed to hear direct questions and get straightforward answers. Here are 10 questions that would be helpful — especially framed as yes-or-no questions — in assessing where candidates stand on issues that have made their way into the 2020 campaign; truthfully, it is likely that every candidate has a ready answer with either “yes” or “no” at its core. These questions would also serve as a useful test of candor, something candidates always claim to have in greater supply than their competitors. So, debate moderators, consider the following questions:

  1. Should there be reparations for slavery?
  2. Should Congress begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump?
  3. Would you move the U.S. Embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv?
  4. Would you abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)?
  5. Do you support any restrictions on abortions?
  6. Would you tear down existing border walls?
  7. Do you support free college tuition for all?
  8. Do you support the Green New Deal?
  9. Do you support Medicare-for-all?
  10. Would you repeal the Trump tax cuts?

A yes-or-no answer to each of these questions would do a lot to sharpen the public’s view of a candidate’s fundamental approach to today’s politics. If their positions are at best nuanced or at worst evasive, candidates should be held to account.

So far the political dialogue has been mostly about Trump. But with the primary debates about to start, being anti-Trump and nothing else is not going to distinguish any particular candidate trying to pull ahead. Voters already have all the information they need on Trump and then some, and they have already made up their minds as to whether they support the president. And while we are at it, I suspect voters know how Trump would answer each of these questions and that he would not struggle doing so with a yes or no. Now the voters deserve to hear where the Democrats stand.

These days, primaries in both parties appeal most to the extremes. Those who turn out to vote are usually the most fervent Democrats or Republicans, so the candidates tend to pander to them in the primary, believing — wrongly — they can later “moderate” their positions for the general election. Remember the cringe-worthy statement from a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign that after the primary, “it’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

The debates that rage in partisan circles in Washington might not align with the concerns and priorities of Americans beyond the Beltway. It would be useful for the Democratic Party to allow the upcoming debates to be a sounding board for what matters most to their prospective voters before Democrats participate in the caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina early next year. The media has a role to play in generating clarity, and asking clear questions and demanding direct answers are good places to start.

Next week’s debates are just the starting point. Wouldn’t it be useful to begin this campaign with a series of clear yes-or-no questions and answers? The beleaguered American electorate might just find it refreshing.

The Democratic presidential candidates ended one debate on Wednesday: whether Spanish should be an official language. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The 2020 Democrats will debate soon. Here’s why it will be awful.

Jennifer Rubin: Want to win your presidential debate? Follow these 10 rules.

Jennifer Rubin: Foreign policy questions for the Democratic debates

Stuart Stevens: Democrats, band together. Demand better debates.

Hugh Hewitt: Democrats, don’t turn the 2020 debates into traffic jams