13 vital questions CNN should (but won't) ask at tonight's Democratic debate

Don't count on hearing anything consequential tonight. That would mean asking a question with teeth

By David Dayen

Published October 13, 2015 9:56AM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)

After months of cable news outlets chasing Donald Trump ratings and thinning the number of political parties they cover to one, the Democrats will finally hold their first presidential primary debate tonight in Las Vegas. The DNC regrettably saw fit to cede the playing field to the Republicans for months, at least partially causing the erosion in head-to-head matchup polling. But that ends tonight, and the media will have to acknowledge the existence of another nominating campaign from here on out, or at least the five nominees onstage: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee.

If CNN manages to get past the meta issues and horse-race preoccupations, they may stumble upon something interesting. The historic 2008 primary, after all, was mostly an issues-based election, with voters choosing between subtle yet important differences among the major candidates. Despite Clinton’s best efforts to elide those differences, with stands in recent weeks against the Keystone XL pipeline, the Cadillac tax, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, they are far more pronounced this time around. The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party may not look as chaotic as its counterpart on the right, but it hangs over this debate, with much of the energy firmly on the left edge of the party.

Unfortunately, that debate, one that explores these fissures, isn’t likely to appear tonight. Instead we’ll get a half-hour on Benghazi and email servers, despite the implosion of the House GOP’s special select committee over the last week. Meanwhile, Joe Biden is likely to have the second-most questions directed at him -- even though he will not be in attendance in Las Vegas. You will have to be something of a detective to find anything truly interesting emanating from the debate stage.

Nonetheless, here’s my wish list of questions, which will probably go unasked, that I would like to hear during this debate:

  • “If one of you becomes the nominee and ultimately the next President of the United States, you will probably serve with at least one if not both chambers of Congress under Republican control. Your lists of campaign promises and priorities are extremely unlikely to ever get to the committee stage, let alone passed through the House. What is it that you think you will be able to accomplish in the face of an opposition that won’t want you to be allowed to pass a budget, let alone anything else? And please, refrain from answering with anything about how it’s time to ‘work together in a bipartisan way to solve the nation’s problems,’ because the other party has already foreclosed on that idea.”
  • “Given the difficulty with enacting an agenda during a time of political polarization, the personnel you choose to implement the current conditions of government becomes magnified in importance. Would you commit to not hiring anyone to run cabinet agencies with a personal stake or former stint of employment in a company that agency oversees or regulates? Does Washington need different viewpoints than industry expats or officials who take the corporate line? For point of reference, how do you assess President Obama’s recent choices for agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Education or the Food and Drug Administration?”
  • “To reduce the veto points in a political system already freighted with them, would you support weakening or even eliminating the Senate filibuster, even if that means that Republicans would benefit from having a freer hand in getting their bills passed when in the majority?”
  • “What other structural changes does our political system need in order to avoid governmental paralysis? Or would you prefer to operate in a legal gray area in order to make progress? Is it a bigger priority to make the United States governable or to aggrandize executive power to make the Presidential election more consequential?”
  • “Ninety percent of the nation’s workers haven’t had a raise in real wages since 1979, according to one measure. What do you think happened in 1979 to upend the way the economy had functioned since WWII, and what can be done to reverse what is now more than a trend?”
  • “Secretary Clinton has said that bank regulation doesn’t represent the whole of financial reform, that the regulatory perimeter must be extended to include shadow banks who perform similar functions without a similar focus. On the other side, simply extending the net and requiring more disclosure of more firms doesn’t address the astounding interconnection between all parts of the financial sector, meaning that errors in one area can rapidly migrate and poison the whole system. What is more important: a comprehensive strategy that leaves nothing in the dark, or a fragmentary strategy that breaks the connections between firms into manageable parts?”
  • “When President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, it was described by its design architects like Tom Harkin as a 'starter home' that could be built upon to get to an ideal policy. Five years later nothing has been built upon it. What are those pieces that could be layered onto our health care system to improve it, and do they primarily fall in the area of cost or quality?”
  • “Do you think the Obama-era revolution in education, from charter schools to testing regimes to teacher evaluations, properly benefits schools and gives students the best chance to succeed as well-rounded individuals capable of independent thought and analysis?”
  • “The gun control reforms Democrats have proposed since the expiration of the assault weapons ban have been fairly mild, and experts have pronounced them unlikely to help bring down the incidences of gun violence. You would have to actually reduce the number of guns in circulation to get there. Are you willing to propose that?”
  • “How high should the bar be for assessing when the United States uses its military – including the use of unmanned drones or special forces operations – and what are the factors that should enter into that decision?”
  • “Can you give me an example from the past 30 years where training and equipping a foreign nation’s opposition has actually led to a successful outcome?”
  • “How will you as President explain to the nation that the world is actually much safer than it has been in the past several centuries, and that the proper assessment of threats would lead to a conclusion that terrorism falls below such activities as drunk driving accidents or medical errors in hospitals?”

I could go on all day, but this is a good sampling of ideas that would really separate the candidates on policy and help the party rank-and-file determine what they stand for. If CNN got around to just a couple of these topics, I’d be both surprised and satisfied.

David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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