Politics & Policy

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Debate omissions.

Tomorrow night, John McCain and Barack Obama debate for the last time. After two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, what is left for moderator Bob Schieffer to ask?  Plenty.

Transcripts of the previous debates are online. Thanks to the “Find” function of web browsers, it is simple to search for words and phrases appearing in questions and answers.  (Technical hint: Firefox is better on this score than Explorer.) It’s also easy to find out which terms have not yet come up at all. Some of the omissions are striking.

#ad#Abortion. So far, nobody has even uttered the word in the debates, though Biden made a glancing reference to Roe v. Wade. One might think that a journalist would want to probe the sharp differences between the candidates on this issue. McCain has a long pro-life record while Obama opposed the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act.

Stem Cells, Cloning. In the 2006 election, Michael J. Fox made news with attack ads against GOP Senate candidates who opposed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. (Michael Steele had a nifty response ad.) This year, both presidential candidates have voiced support for embryonic-stem-cell research. In response to a questionnaire, however, McCain said: “I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress.”

School Prayer, Evolution, Creationism. All of these hot buttons have gone unpressed.

Gun Control. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court confirmed that the Second Amendment secures an individual’s right to own firearms. Obama reversed himself on the case, first saying that DC’s gun ban was constitutional, then agreeing with the court’s decision to strike it down.

Supreme Court. As the 5-4 Heller case suggests, even a single appointment could have a major effect on the law. Amazingly, the transcripts show no mention of the phrase “Supreme Court” or any of the sitting justices. Biden did briefly note that he “led the fight against Judge Bork” in 1987, but failed to add that in 1986, he said he’d “have to vote for him.” In any case, there has been no discussion of standards for choosing judicial nominees.

Immigration, immigrant, immigrate. A couple of years ago, most observers assumed that immigration would be a pivotal issue of the 2008 race. It hasn’t been. Arguably, a reduced inflow of illegal aliens has taken some of the urgency out of the controversy. But with at least 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, does anybody think that we have solved the problem once and for all?

Race, racial, affirmative action. Here is the most stunning omission of all. In a contest featuring the first black major-party nominee, the debates have been silent on race. No one has used the word race except in the context of “presidential race” or “arms race.” But like immigration, racial issues are not going away. In a school discrimination case last year, Chief Justice Roberts wrote: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” It would be instructive if Bob Schieffer asked the candidates whether they agree.

It is natural that the economy and Iraq have occupied a large share of debate time. But McCain and Obama have probably used up their talking points on both issues. Viewers might learn more about the candidates if they had to discuss other matters, especially those that have dared not speak their names.

 – John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.



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