Questions asked during the presidential debates

Of all the presidential debates, the only one I actually watched was yesterday’s debate for third-party candidates moderated by Larry King. That debate touched on several topics that are extremely important to me. I thought I’d go back and see how the debates between the money candidates stacked up by comparison.

I couldn’t find a simple list of the questions asked in each debate, so I went to the transcripts and pulled out the questions myself. For the purpose of this comparison, I was more interested in what the candidates were asked, and not what their answers were.

To find the questions, I used transcripts from The Washington Post. They’re linked in the headings below.

First Debate: Domestic Issues

  1. How would you go about creating new jobs?
  2. How would you tackle the deficit problem?
  3. What is your position on Social Security and entitlements?
  4. What is your view on the level of federal regulation of the economy?
  5. What is your position on health care and the Affordable Care Act?
  6. What is the mission of the federal government?
  7. What is the role the federal government in education?
  8. What would you do about partisan gridlock?

Second Debate: “Town Hall”-Style Questions

  1. What should be done about the lack of job prospects for new college graduates?
  2. What about the long-term unemployed?
  3. Do you agree with the energy secretary that it’s not the Energy Department’s job to help lower gas prices?
  4. If you reduce tax credits and deductions to make up for lost revenue due to tax cuts, which would you reduce, and how would that affect the middle class?
  5. What will you do about income inequality between women and men?
  6. Governor Romney, how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?
  7. President Obama, what have you accomplished to earn my vote again in 2012?
  8. What do you plan to do concerning immigrants without green cards who are currently productive members of society?
  9. Who denied extra security for our embassy in Libya, and why?
  10. Does the buck stop with the Secretary of State in terms of the assassination?
  11. What will you do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
  12. What plans do you have to bring jobs back to the US from overseas?
  13. How do you convince a company to bring manufacturing jobs back here from China, where labor is so much cheaper?
  14. What do you believe is the biggest misconception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?

Third Debate: Foreign Policy

  1. Concerning Libya, what happened and why?
  2. Should we change our strategy in Syria?
  3. What is America’s role in the world?
  4. Governor, you say you want to increase military spending. Where would you get the money?
  5. Would you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States?
  6. There are reports that Iran and the United States have agreed to talk about Iran’s nuclear program. Is this true, and what would you agree to?
  7. What would you do if Israel decided to attack Iran?
  8. If it’s obvious the Afghans can’t handle their own security by our withdrawal deadline, what will you do?
  9. Is it time for us to stop supporting Pakistan?
  10. What is your position on the use of drones?
  11. What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?
  12. By labeling China a currency manipulator, isn’t there a danger of starting a trade war?

In total, the money candidates got to answer 34 questions. By comparison, here are the 6 questions answered by the third-party candidates. As no transcript seems to be available at present, I watched the video again and got the questions from the closed captioning.

Third-Party Debate

  1. A top-two primary is an election in which party labels appear on the ballot, but parties do not nominate candidates. Instead, the candidates choose their own ballot label. All candidates run in the primary, but only the top two vote-getters appear on the ballot in the November election. This system is currently used in LA, WA, and CA. It is now a ballot measure in AZ, Prop 121, with other states interested in adopting the system. What is your position on the top-two primary system and why?
  2. In what ways does the war on drugs impact Americans, and how could these effects be reduced? Is there a more efficient way to deal with the issue of drug use in America?
  3. Do you think that an annual military budget of nearly $1 trillion is absolutely necessary to keep us safe, and in a broader sense, what do you think should be the role, worldwide, of the United States military?
  4. Some estimates give a college education in the year 2030 a price tag of nearly $400,000. Is college really worth it at that point? If so, how do we provide the opportunity to everyone?
  5. Where do you stand on NDAA section 1021, the ability to detain Americans indefinitely?
  6. If you had the opportunity to write one constitutional amendment with an absolute guarantee it would be approved by Congress and the state legislatures, what would it be?

Obviously, with fewer questions, the topics were much broader, but even so, the third-party candidates covered ground that Obama and Romney didn’t. I certainly would have liked to have heard the money candidates talk about election reform, the war on drugs, and the NDAA. I also would have liked to have heard the third-party candidates delve into topics like health care and social security. (Two of the third-party candidates will weigh in on foreign policy on October 30.)

Ideally, I would like all six candidates in a debate together, with Larry King as moderator, a “cut the mic” button to keep the candidates from interrupting each other (not really a problem in the third-party debate, but apparently the money debates had trouble), and a team of live fact-checkers. Too bad that will never happen.

Here’s some coverage of the third-party debate.

Endorsing not-Romney

Picking a president is, to me, one of the most important things we do as citizens. Though technically we don’t make the final selection–that’s up to the Electoral College–and though there are some states that have been deemed more important while other states don’t even seem to matter, the popular vote can give us the best idea of what the majority wants. It’s a good measure of the mood of the country. It’s a poll with a huge sample size.

And so I take my decision very seriously. Armed with as many facts as I can find, I try to make a choice that I believe would be best for everyone.

This election has been extremely difficult.

I was first eligible to vote for president in the 1996 election between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, but I had been passionate about presidential politics at least since the 1992 election. Ronald Reagan had been president for almost as long as I’d been alive (I was born in 1978), and I supported his successor, George H.W. Bush. We had a black-and-white faxed Bush poster hanging in our basement (faxing was big back then) that showed a picture of Bush pointing his finger and a purported threat to “kick [Saddam Hussein’s] ass” wherein certain words were replaced by oil company logos. I thought this was hilarious and didn’t quite get the double meaning. At this time I figured we were all on the same side and that America would simply keep being awesome.

I can’t honestly remember if Bush’s loss to Clinton took me by surprise, but I know I irrationally hated Clinton afterward. I was convinced that everything he said was a lie; I believed that I could tell just by looking at him that he was smarmy. I thought of him as a self-serving used car dealer type, eager to sell the country a lemon. This was slightly before Fox News Channel, but I did listen to Rush Limbaugh, and my dad watched a lot of other news programs on TV. And boy did my dad hate Clinton.

As the 1996 election approached, I happily spent my senior year vetting the candidates in the Republican primary. I wanted someone who could get Clinton out. I wanted someone who I felt shared my values, which, at the time, were evangelical Christian. And I wanted someone charismatic who could rally people, because an argument could be made that Ross Perot lost Bush the 1992 election, and I didn’t want to see a third-party candidate “stealing” votes like that again. I ended up choosing Alan Keyes, and talking him up to all my friends. But Keyes was not selected and we were, in my mind, “stuck with” Bob Dole.

I’d loved Reagan and Bush I. They’d seemed presidential to me. Bob Dole just…didn’t. He seemed like he was trying too hard. I entered college in the fall of 1996 shortly before the election. Around that point I discovered and started looking into the libertarian candidate, Harry Browne. After years and years of war, isolationist policies were sounding more and more appealing to me. But ultimately, I was afraid that votes would split between the Republican candidate and a third-party candidate and that Clinton would win. So in 1996, I voted for not-Clinton. I voted for Dole. My very first presidential election, and I was already faced with the “lesser of two evils” choice that has hounded me ever since.

Obviously, Clinton won again. Lots of things happened in my life around that point–I dropped out of school and got a job working retail, I was diagnosed with cancer, I underwent treatment and recovery, and I re-enrolled in school, this time at the University of Kentucky. I’d lived two states away my first year of college, but now I was back living with my parents. Fox News was always on (except when Rush was on) and every day Clinton did something to infuriate my dad. I was convinced that Clinton was unfaithful and his infidelity meant he couldn’t be trusted, so I fully supported his impeachment. I was also convinced that he launched strategic drone strikes against supposed terrorists whenever he wanted to get the heat off his personal life.

Still, this was a wonderful time for me intellectually. I hadn’t picked a major, so I was taking courses that sounded interesting, including several about gender and women’s studies. I became a feminist (though at the time I described myself as “a classical feminist, not a femi-Nazi”). Thankfully, I never got to the point where I believed institutions of higher learning were a waste of time and money, though I did have some ideas about making universities better. One belief that has stuck with me from that time in my life is that the university community, with access to so many people, so many different ideas, so many resources, is one of the greatest environments for learning we can have. You don’t just learn facts there; anyone can learn facts on their own. You learn about people, about life.

The 2000 election was kind of a no-brainer for me, unfortunately; I associated Gore with Clinton and didn’t do any further research into his side. The most I can remember is that I thought he was boring. I did pay a lot of attention to the Republican primary. Alan Keyes was back, but by then I considered him incapable of actually winning. I recall liking Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes and being interested in Elizabeth Dole, but ultimately I had no complaints with Bush II’s selection. At the time he was a pretty eloquent speaker, and I thought the family name gave him gravitas.

After 9/11 I was terrified that the terrorists were going to strike smaller cities like Lexington, to try and make the point that our government couldn’t protect us. (I didn’t really understand the “point” they were trying to make; the World Trade Center literally meant nothing to me before 9/11.) I remember being very thankful that we had a strong Republican in office to deal with the threat. I also remember wishing it had happened under Clinton, because it would have served as an indictment of his presidency(!).

By 2004 I had married and moved to Augusta. I was somewhat divorced from politics, not having cable at home, so when I happened to be in a hotel in Boston that summer, I watched John Kerry speak for the first time on TV. He was a good speaker, and I really, really liked what he was saying, on an emotional level. But then I stopped, pulled back, and said, “That sounds great, but how would he actually do it?” (Ultimately, I voted for Bush again; I didn’t trust a non-Republican to “stay the course” properly in Iraq.)

Note how many of my political opinions starting out were based on feelings and impressions. I had access to information, but I focused more on how it made me feel personally than on what it meant empirically. This was not fact-based decision-making. That critical thinking moment with John Kerry’s speech was probably the first time I started using my brain properly, which is kind of sad. I was still coming at everything from a Republican viewpoint, but I was no longer willing to simply ignore what the other side said or to accept things at face value.

I had a job in news during the 2008 election, and information was everywhere. I watched and read and absorbed everything I could. As you probably know, I voted Obama, going with “the other party” for the first time. I’d like to say I made this decision completely logically, learning from my history of emotional decision-making, but that would be untrue. Still, I paid a lot more attention to the facts during that election than I ever had before. I was growing more and more aware of the situations of people in this country who are not me, and I wanted a president who was also aware of those situations and who would work to improve everyone’s lot. I remembered John McCain from previous elections, and I’d liked him previously, but his rhetoric this time around didn’t mesh with my vision of a progressive country. I was also rather flummoxed by Sarah Palin, who seemed like a nice enough person but clearly wasn’t qualified for her role. When a woman becomes president or vice president, I want it to be because she deserves it, not out of tokenism. While I did generally want to finally have a non-white president, I would never have voted for Obama based on the color of his skin. He earned the presidency through the power of his conviction and insight. A weaker candidate never could have done it. Obama’s race wasn’t a leg up; it was a hurdle.

Well, now it’s time for another presidential election. (As you know, since it’s been going on for two years.) I would say that this is the election for which I have the most information. I also have a clear vision of the priorities I want for our government.

And for the past several months, I have been in turmoil over who to vote for.

Economically, I’m happy with Obama. I’d like to see the tax cuts implemented by Bush and renewed by him expire–hell, I’d really like to see broad tax reform–but in terms of doing what he can to guide the country out of the financial crisis, I agree with the economists I’ve read that Obama has done a pretty decent job. A different president might undo all the good that has already been done, which is a scary thought. Or they might continue it and add something better. Ultimately, we don’t know what will happen, and the only person’s past performance we can even remotely rely on as a gauge is Obama’s.

On social issues, I’m okay with Obama. He says all the right things. He seems to get it. Based on his performance so far, I think we can trust him at least not to upset the status quo. And his Affordable Healthcare Act certainly helped a lot of people, especially women. Romney, on the other hand, has indicated that his public policy will reflect the values of a certain segment of the population and not the needs of the population as a whole. How much of that should we take seriously? How much of it is just rhetoric to get himself elected, to please his donors and voting base? Social issues are how candidates get people “riled up”; it’s considered a “safe” way to campaign. A Facebook commenter asked recently: how many Republican candidates have campaigned on ending abortion, only to do absolutely nothing about it once elected?

I would have found this “rhetoric has no teeth” argument more compelling before the Tea Party took control of much of the country and started passing anti-abortion legislation on the state level. I would say that at this point, social issues are back in play, and we need to be careful what we do about them. We can’t just trust candidates to be all talk.

So far, Obama seems to be a natural choice for me. The economy and social issues are huge, and he seems to be getting those things right. But other things are important too–things like due process and privacy. Our governmental post-9/11 paranoia has not abated under Obama; if anything, it’s flourished. Here’s a post I wrote back in April detailing all the rights we’ve lost or are in danger of losing if we don’t start paying attention.

This is enormous, people. It changes how our country fundamentally works. It codifies things we always worried or joked that the government was doing secretly and illegally. Maybe they were, but now there’s no recourse for citizens if we find out about it…because now it’s legal.

We are essentially no longer innocent until proven guilty. We can be held “on suspicion” for as long as the government wants. Obama has also used drone strikes to execute terror suspects without trial, including a US citizen.

I would hope that Obama isn’t making some sort of power grab here, and that he’s just naively acting in ways he thinks will improve national security at minimum cost. But there’s no way to know. All I do know is that a country that treats all of its citizens like criminals, spying on them and holding them without trial and killing them with drone strikes abroad, is not a “free country”.

Journalists have heard of these things, and some have spoken out against it, but others are either afraid of not getting invited to the fancy parties anymore or afraid of being spirited away in the night by the military. Whatever the reason, we’re not hearing about this anywhere. It’s bad enough that people who point it out sound like conspiracy theorist kooks, even though the legislation is readily available for anyone to read. The democratic process can’t work if people aren’t in possession of the facts…and people aren’t in possession of the facts. (A lot of people barely have time to put food on the table, let alone research all this stuff.)

Would Romney fix these problems? I don’t know enough about him to say for sure, but if he’s following a Republican hard line, I imagine he’ll just keep walking this same path. He certainly hasn’t called for anything like a repeal of the PATRIOT Act.

There are third-party candidates who have, though. The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, is one of them. Some of my friends who supported Ron Paul in the primaries have switched their allegiance to this guy. I was hoping Ron Paul would win the Republican nomination, because even though I didn’t agree with a lot of what he said, I liked where he stood on personal freedom and privacy, and I figured a choice between him and Obama would be more of a toss-up than between Obama and any of the other candidates, who were all far too evangelical for my taste. As I liked some of what Paul said, I like some of what Johnson says, but I don’t really consider myself a libertarian anymore. I think the world is too interconnected for us to just stay out of things. (I do, however, think war should be dead last on our list of options.) I’m also concerned that Johnson would go the austerity route too soon, while the economy is still trying to recover.

Another third-party candidate calling for the repeal of PATRIOT is Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. I started looking into her after an online questionnaire told me my opinions matched best with hers. The Green New Deal is extremely interesting and I am in favor of a lot of it, including election reform, overturning Citizens United, making voting easier and more secure, making Election Day a national holiday, breaking up big banks, taxing the bonuses of bailed-out bankers at 90% (love that!), restoring Glass-Steagall, ending financial bailouts, investing in transportation, power/water, local food, and education infrastructures, and investing in green industries. I’m interested in the other ideas as well, but this is a far-left party and as such the entire platform (except, I suppose, the 50% military cut) depends on big government, which would be funded via tax reform. I’d like to see if this would work, but I’m not convinced enough of the country would get behind such a plan for Stein to have a chance of winning. Even if she did get elected, she certainly wouldn’t have much in the way of Congressional support, so it’s unclear how many of her goals she would actually be able to achieve.

Still, at this point, I like her the best. So now my problem is, do I vote for the candidate I actually want, or do I vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate I absolutely don’t want? Where is my vote most effective? Is my vote effective at all? Should I try to be strategic, or should I be straightforward?

Going back to my “presidential election as a poll” idea, I should be straightforward. I shouldn’t worry about my vote protecting us from a Romney presidency; I should simply vote for the candidate I actually support. I shouldn’t worry that my candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning; instead, I should worry about making sure the “poll” provides an accurate picture. If I voted for Obama, it wouldn’t be because I wholeheartedly support him, after all.

What would it mean, though, if Dr. Stein got a lot of votes, but didn’t win? Would we simply call it the Perot Effect? Would it renew our fear of voting for third-party candidates?

Are we ever going to have a system that lets us vote for the candidates we like without having to worry about this?

Salvaging our elections process

It has long disturbed me that the people we “elect” to national office often aren’t the best qualified or most representative of the will of the people they represent, but instead seemingly the ones who manage to get their names and faces out in front of people the longest. This implies that our politicians spend the majority of their time chasing and then spending money…not exactly the scions of fiscal responsibility we want in control of our budget.

A friend suggested to me that in the UK, they cap campaign spending and have a limited time set for campaigning, and that these would be excellent rules to implement here. I don’t know what the UK system is exactly, but I have my own thoughts on how this would work out. I also came up with a third condition that I think would maximize effectiveness.

  1. Make all campaigns, and candidates, transparent

    The first step is to ensure that the public has free and easy access to the same information about all candidates. This should include things like a campaign’s budget, and which companies or lobby groups have donated to the campaign. (Private citizens’ donations would remain private, unless they passed a certain percentage of the campaign funding cap.)

    This should also include things like a candidate’s resume–past offices and jobs held, voting history in context. This should not include things like a candidate’s “stance on the issues”, as these are not reliable measures and are often nothing more than editorializing or, at worst, pandering. Nor should this include any analysis. The raw data should be presented in ways that makes it easy for people of various learning types to understand, but the greatest efforts should be made to keep that data pure and complete. People should be able to use that data to make their own decisions.

    Designing this data presentation interface would be the greatest user experience project in the history of America. Determining what data to include and maintaining that data would be some of the most important work in this country, as it would literally allow democracy to function.

    Once the interface was designed, various vendors could work with the API to allow users to interact with the data in public libraries and in their own homes. The Xbox Kinect, for example, could help kinetic learners. Obviously, this interface would also need to take accessibility questions into account.

    This data would need to be protected just as the internet itself is protected.

    The media would have access to the data just as average citizens would, and they would be perfectly within their First Amendment rights to provide their own analysis of it, and add their own original reporting. However, they should be required to make it clear where the data ends and their own analysis and reporting begins.

  2. Put a cap on campaign funding

    Rather than simply limiting what candidates can spend, I would limit how much money a candidate can raise for an election at all. Currently, some donations aren’t used for a specific election, but are saved for a later time. I would require that all funds raised during the election period be limited to a certain amount and then spent on that election. Any money left over would then be split equally among those who had donated, at the expense of the campaign fund. An outside accountant would oversee this process. There would be no donating to a politician’s campaign in the middle of the year, only during election time.

    The purpose here is not to further distance candidates from the concept of long-term financial planning, but to make it easier for candidates who were not born into wealth or prestige to have a shot at getting elected. Ideally, campaign planning would become so dissimilar to the national budget (and so compartmentalized and short-term by comparison) that it would not interfere with an elected public servant’s understanding or take his or her attention away from the true purpose of office.

    While this would not completely level the candidate playing field, it would eliminate the gross advantage certain candidates enjoy solely due to their personal wealth. Rich candidates could still run, of course, but they would be limited to using the same amount of money as other candidates. Instead of having the enormous advantage of being a major candidate through no personal merit, they’d simply have the lesser advantage of not having to spend time seeking donations.

    As all campaigns would be transparent, people would know when a candidate was reaching his or her funding cap, and therefore they could stop donating in time for the candidate not to have to deal with refunding a lot of money.

  3. Limit campaign activities to a defined campaign period

    Currently, our elected officials are campaigning year-round. They’re thinking about re-election at all times, seeking out more and more campaign money, concentrating more on keeping their jobs than on taking care of their work. Capping campaign funding solves half of that problem. The other half would be solved by prohibiting any election activity outside of a defined election time.

    Our presidential election process is the best example of how long and exhausting an election process can get. By the time voters head to the polls (or not), they’re already tired of the election. They may have tuned it all out. They may simply vote along party lines. They may be frustrated over the political grandstanding and wondering where, exactly, the candidates really stand.

    Setting a short, defined period for campaigning, and prohibiting candidates from participating in any campaign-related activities outside of that period–fundraising, answering interview questions about elections, sending out campaign fliers and such–would eliminate campaign fatigue and also force candidates to get down to the meat of matters rather than switching up their “stances” based on opinion polls. Put some teeth in this one: any candidate found to be engaged in any campaign activity outside of the campaign period should be ineligible to run in the next election.

    This doesn’t mean that candidates wouldn’t be able to discuss issues. It’s imperative that they be able to do that. But they should do so in a way that makes it obvious their goal is to help the country, not their own agendas. This would probably be the hardest thing to enforce, so I would recommend against trying. (These are politicians, after all.) Only overt campaign activities would result in an election ban.

    There should also be some sort of punishment for any media organization that tries to trap a candidate into answering a question that would make him or her ineligible. Maybe a severe fine.

    I don’t support the idea of a state-run media at all. While I believe there is some severe corruption in the news media right now, I don’t think the solution would be for the government to strictly regulate the media. There has to be room for the media to operate for its true and just purpose: journalism. At the same time, though, there are certain media behaviors, such as favoring one candidate over another candidate, or ignoring certain candidates completely, that are too troublesome to ignore. I am hoping that the steps I’m outlining here to change the election process would have the effect of changing how the media approaches elections. I’m not prepared at this time to forbid the media from discussing an election outside the defined election period. That seems way too Big Brother-y. I would hope, rather, that once citizens knew they could get all the information they needed during the election period, they wouldn’t really want the media to be constantly projecting who was going to run and who might be the winner from those who might be running…and they’d say so. And then, finally, a presidential election might not last for three years.

  4. Require all candidates to take a governance test

    Give all candidates a test at the same time, at the beginning of the election period, once all candidates had announced for a position. The first part of the test would be multiple choice, a mix of questions about American history, American government, economics, world history and politics, and basic math. The second part would require candidates to answer an essay question about a current national issue. This would not be a “what is your stance” question, but a “what specific steps would you take in this specific scenario” question.

    Arrangements would be made for candidates to take the test in a way that matches their learning styles. An aural learner could have a proctor read the test to them, for example. The test would be made as accessible as possible to all candidates.

    Candidates would not be required to pass this test to run for office. However, the tests would all be publicly available pieces of a candidate’s data, easy for citizens to retrieve and evaluate. The media would of course also have access and be able to pick each candidate’s answers apart.

    This should give the candidates plenty of impetus to spend the time outside the campaign period making sure they have actual knowledge that will assist them in governance.

  5. Eliminate PACs and Super PACs

    I figured this went without saying, but then I figured I’d better say it anyway. There would be no point in limiting a candidate’s campaigning without doing this.

I foresee many things changing, should all these conditions be met. With elected officials no longer spending the bulk of their time on campaigning, actual governing should improve. The thought of this would appeal to those members of Congress who actually do want to govern properly, and just don’t have the time. I think there would be enough support for this kind of reform even within government that it could go through. The hardest part would be creating the data interface, since nothing like this has ever been done before.

Once this system was in place, we would start to see a lot of new faces in politics, and I think the constant refresh would do a world of good. We would also see more of a focus on actually running the country, and less on the power and prestige of being a long-term member of Congress. Maybe the newer, more civic-minded members would think about how members of Congress are treated differently by the law than regular citizens are, and maybe they would start to change that.