The other day, Gawker ran an article about the leaked memorandum of understanding the Obama and Romney campaigns signed that established the rules of the debates. John Cook called out the two candidates for being cowards for insisting on rules that turned potentially important, potentially charged face-to-face arguments between two men who disagree violently on a lot of stuff into toothless joint press conferences. The rules stipulated that the candidates couldn’t question each other directly, the audience members—when asking questions—couldn’t deviate from pre-approved scripts, and the moderator couldn’t ask follow-ups. “Both campaigns are terrified at anything even remotely spontaneous happening,” John wrote, and he’s not wrong.
Well, the good news is that all of the rules were broken last night: Candy Crowley challenged the candidates, particularly Romney; the two men talked directly to each other in a way that made it clear they weren’t going to hang out at the same country club when the election was over; and the crowd even broke out into forbidden applause at one point. The bad news is that the problem with the debates isn’t that the candidates are unwilling to engage each other or hide behind gentlemen’s agreements, the problem is that the people who question the candidates refused to ask them about issues that are really, really important to millions of people.
We’ve had two presidential debates so far, one entirely concerned with domestic issues and one—last night’s “town hall”—only nearly entirely concerned with domestic issues. In both cases, the moderators were 100 percent responsible for the topics discussed. Jim Lehrer was the one who decided to devote that entire first debate to the economy and health care, and although “ordinary Americans” got to submit questions and ask the approved ones to candidates directly in the second, Crowley was responsible for picking the questions from the submission slush pile—she could have read them herself, or a dancing pirate robot could have read them; it made no difference whether the physical questioners were there or not. The candidates’ agreement about the rules of the debates didn’t say anything about what topics were fair game or not, it was Lehrer and Crowley who decided not to ask the men who would be president about the following topics:
-The War on Drugs
-Intellectual property law
If you’re feeling generous, you can lump climate change in with “foreign policy,” (which sort of makes sense) and hope they’re going to get to it in the last debate. And you can dismiss the last three items on that list as things that only niche groups care about—not a lot of people want to hear arguments for reducing the population of our overcrowded prisons or discuss whether we’re strangling innovations by giving too much power to copyright holders. Fine. But there are ballot measures in three states to legalize marijuana entirely, and seven states will decide whether to join the 17 that already allow sick people to smoke weed. About half of Americans want to end pot prohibition. That’s not a fringe issue. That’s something that the next president is going to have to deal with—is either candidate going to use federal law to arrest weed merchants in California, as Obama has been doing? Is either one going to let the states decide their own drug laws? Is either one even open to changing the federal government’s “Pot is bad, mmmmkay?” policies?
As for gay marriage, that’s a pretty big point of contention between Obama and Romney: Obama supports it (though he also says he wants to leave it up to the states), while Romney signed a pledge opposing it last year. Romney’s been talking way more moderate than he was during the primaries—would he soften his anti-gay stance if pressed during a debate? Does he really want to defend the Defense of Marriage Act? He’ll have to make that call most likely the first day he steps into the oval office. Romney talked about two-parent households last night; the GOP platform includes quite a lot about (implicitly hetero) families—is he opposed to gay adoption? (He’s said before he’s OK with it.) You can ask similar fundamental questions about abortion—do you think life begins at conception? Should the government try harder to make sure women have access to places where they can get safe abortions? Romney said at one point in last night’s debate that “all women should have access to contraception”—does he mean that women should be able to purchase contraception at market prices, or that the government should help provide it to them? We won’t know, since Crowley didn’t press him on that point. And the time to ask either candidate about that stuff has passed, since the last debate will touch only on foreign policy.
Maybe Lehrer and Crowley, like a lot of beltway establishment media types, think that economic issues that give the candidates the chance to talk about trillions of dollars are more “serious” while social issues like whether you can marry the person you love or have an abortion or get arrested for smoking a joint are sideshows. Maybe the public has an insatiable appetite for candidates sniping at one another over tax plan specifics and who wants to drill for oil on federal land more. Or maybe the problem is that the moderators, like the candidates, are obsessed with appealing to a mythical swing voter—the middle-aged white small business owner who lives in Ohio and will nod at talk about oil prices and job creation even though those subjects are things that presidents can’t usually control.
Well, the president has some say about who goes to jail for weed and who can marry whom and whether women’s reproductive rights are protected, and the people who could have gotten the two potential presidents to discuss those topics failed to do so. That they didn’t is a fucking disgrace and one more reason to distrust the craven groupthink instincts of the national political media—or one more reason to light up a joint with your same-sex partner and ignore the debates completely.