One reason the debate lacked a certain coherence: There were a number of questions that should have been asked but weren’t, questions that would have helped better define the candidates and framed the two-hour session.
The problem began with the opening question: Anchor Savannah Guthrie asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) about her many plans, and whether they could pose a risk to the economy. Good question! But not as an opener.
Here’s my suggestion for a new opening query. Why should you be the Democratic nominee for president? Each candidate gets 30 seconds. If that’s not asked immediately, we get what we did last night: Viewers are plunged into a seemingly already-ongoing session of a not-particularly-well-run group job interview.
MSNBC and NBC’s anchors were clearly assuming the audience was familiar with all the candidates. But unless you are a news junkie, that’s highly unlikely. If the reason to allow little-known candidates polling at 1 or 2 percent — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and former Maryland congressman John Delaney last night and Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang tonight — on the debate stage is to make their case to the American public, let them introduce themselves properly and make their best appeal.
Another query should directly tackle the elephant in the room: Trump. Every candidate on that stage is there because they believe our current president doesn’t deserve a second term. They need to be asked why, and in a somewhat open-ended way. All sorts of things could come up. Do they believe the Mueller report is disqualifying? What about Trump’s shoddy record of presidential appointments? His attempts to roll back decades of federal regulation, including Obama-era changes to the Clean Air Act, changes so extreme that his proposed loosening of auto pollution standards is opposed by large sectors of the automobile industry? The horrifying number of allegations of mistreatment of women, ranging from sexual harassment to last week’s claim by writer E. Jean Carroll that the future president attacked her in the dressing room of New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman department store in the mid-1990s? Something else? The answers would no doubt be illuminating.
A third question for Thursday night: The Social Security Trust Fund is on track to run out of money in 2035. That doesn’t mean Social Security is going “bankrupt” or that benefits would cease. But it’s quite possible they would be cut if nothing is done. At the same time, retirement savings are an increasing issue, with projections showing large numbers of younger baby boomers and a majority of Generation X are not on track to be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement.
This question will also tee up a major contrast between the two leading candidates, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Biden has made statements that seem to indicate he would consider means-testing Social Security. Sanders, on the other hand, would raises taxes on the wealthy not just to stabilize the trust fund but to expand benefits as well. He released legislation this year doing away with the payroll tax cap on income higher than $250,000 and would include dividends and capital gains when calculating the sum.
Finally, student loans. On Monday, Sanders released a plan arguing for full forgiveness for all outstanding student loans. There is no question student loans are a major economic problem. Paying for the soaring cost of college tuition is financially hobbling all too many millennials. Student loans make it harder to buy a home and save for retirement. They impact the rates of entrepreneurship, and marriage patterns. But does everyone real deserve forgiveness, even multimillionaires? If a candidate doesn’t believe all the money should be forgiven, what would they do instead? And finally, what does Sanders have to say all the people who have paid their student loans back, sometimes making enormous financial sacrifices to do so?
Yes, these questions will show what the men and women on the Miami debate stage believe are the most important issues in American life, and what steps they would take to solve them. But they will do more than shape the debate. They will also offer a better way that what was on offer Wednesday night of viewing the semi-scrum of candidates on the stage, bringing their life stories, governing philosophies and personal sense of right and wrong into a coherent whole.