The unasked questions in last night’s debate

Photo: John Locher / Associated Press

More than half of last night’s debate was about character. It feels like this whole campaign has been about character. It’s time to stop wallowing in that and face the country’s real problems, the problems nobody talks about, which go way beyond who’s running and what they did 10 and 20 years ago.

In any campaign, here’s what people (candidates, surrogates, traditional media, social media) discuss:

  • The candidates’ positions on important decisions the country must make.
  • The candidates’ character, including attacks on each other.
  • The candidates’ past
  • The state of the horse race.

These all matter. But most of the discussion ought to be about our decisions as a country, with a smaller focus on character. Instead, character and the horse race have swallowed the whole conversation, and we’re squandering the chance to talk about how to actually improve people’s lives.

I know these particular candidates have more challenges with character than any in my memory. But must we spend nearly all of our time discussing it, seeking the “gotcha” that will finally reveal that one or the other of them is a fraud, a loser, a liar, or a cheat?

I counted the questions in last night’s debate. Looking only at substantive questions, and not counting repeats, we heard the following:

  • 10 questions about character or the candidates’ past behavior, including the first four questions. We covered Donald Trump’s sexual bragging (two questions), taxes, and tweets, and Hillary Clinton’s emails, speeches to Wall Street, and remarks about Trump’s “deplorable” followers. In several cases, the moderators followed up audience questions about policy (for example tax policy) with their own questions about character (Trump’s tax returns).
  • 10 questions about substantive issues, including the Affordable Care Act (2 questions), Islamophobia and the border wall (2 questions), Syria (3 questions), tax policy, Supreme Court nominations, and energy policy.

This ratio is better than the campaign as a whole, and the reason it’s better is because of the substantive audience questions, but it’s still not good enough. Because we are not hearing about what really matters, yet.

The unasked questions

While we were talking about groping and tax returns and emails, here’s what we didn’t hear about; questions that I really want to know the answers to:

  • How will we deal with sea-level rises that threaten to put huge parts of Florida, Louisiana, and Lower Manhattan underwater, and how will we stop it from getting worse?
  • How will we fix a gridlocked government that can’t even pass funding when it agrees that there’s a problem, as with the Zika epidemic?
  • Are we really comfortable with rich people and corporations paying to fund our political campaigns? And if you think that leads to a government that operates for rich people and corporations, how are you going to stop it?
  • China owns much of our massive federal debt. At some point, won’t that come back to bite us?
  • Our electronic money system is highly convenient: for us, and for people who want to commit fraud, like identity theft. Are we going to fix that?
  • Are we willing to allow the government to know everything about us in the hope that will make us safer?
  • Our current system of higher education has resulted in history’s biggest debt load on the backs of our youngest and most promising citizens. This system is not sustainable. How will we fix it without bankrupting the country, the colleges, or a whole generation of workers?
  • How will we thrive when, in growing areas of the country, there’s not enough water for everyday living and agriculture to coexist?
  • How can you govern a country where half the people and their elected officials hate the elected officials from the other half?
  • Our educational system is now almost completely standardized-test-based. Is this really what we ought to be funding and supporting, or is there a better way?
  • The world does not have the resources for everyone to be happy, secure, and successful. For many in other countries, their desperate situation leads them to hate us. Our attempts to defend ourselves from people who hate us inevitably fail sometimes — there is no absolutely effective defense against terrorism. So, are we going to do anything about all that hate?
  • What’s the plan for a successful economy in an era of increasing globalization and automation? The jobs are going away and we can’t go backwards. How will we go forward? And the people who are out of work and are going to stay out of work — what are we going to do about them?
  • Super-low interest rates sap saving, encourage risky investing, and deprive the Fed of tools to protect the economy from a crash. How will we fix that?
  • Is artificial intelligence an actual threat to the world, as Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk say it is?
  • Can somebody please explain why health insurance is so expensive?

I know you’re all cheering about how we figured out that Trump is a sexist pig and Hillary is a secretive backroom politician. It feels good to tear down the other guy.

But at this point, there’s no mystery left about the character of our candidates — and there hasn’t been for months. While we were wallowing in that, nobody answered any of my questions.

This campaign is a lost cause. But I’d sure like it if, starting on November 9, we started talking about the problems we’ve hired these people to solve.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. If you find a venue for such topics, sign me up.
    If you want to create such a venue, sign me up to help.

    This reminds me a bit of the challenge facing minor parties. They always seem to start with a presidential candidate, when what they need is a national base. What are the steps to building the base that eventually will lead to change in the top elections? We have four years to make the next cycle more substantive.