Politics & Policy

In the Final Debate, the Candidates Ought to Answer Questions about Ideas

Debate preparations in Las Vegas, Nev., October 17, 2016. (Reuters photo: Rick Wilking)
What if we had a meaningful and civil exchange of ideas in tonight’s debate?

No doubt tonight’s third and final presidential debate will make for good television. But there is a marked difference between entertainment and substance. We can expect this debate to once again be dominated by talk of Trump’s (or Bill Clinton’s) treatment of women, Hillary Clinton’s (or Trump’s) duplicity, plus the usual barbs and insults. Yet, the next president will have to do more than not be his or her opponent. There are real issues out there, and it would be nice if the candidates actually mentioned them.

With that in mind, might I suggest a few questions that I’d like to hear answered.

Is there anything that you think government should not do? Both of you have advocated a very expansive view of the role of government. You both agree that it is the government’s responsibility to provide health care, create jobs, prop up wages, pay for child care and college, and generally solve every problem faced by anyone in this country. (In fact, not just this country: Both of you, especially you, Secretary Clinton, seem all too willing to intervene in every international dispute.) Granted, such promises are standard stuff for most elections, but should either of you follow through, your promises are a recipe for a much bigger, costlier, and more intrusive government. But beyond the details and efficacy of specific programs, there is a more fundamental question: What is the legitimate role of government? Can either of you name something that, however desirable, is beyond the authority of government? Is there any area of our lives where government should simply leave us alone?

Can you name one program you would cut or eliminate? Along the same lines, both of you have proposed massive new government spending. Mr. Trump, even a partial reckoning of your proposals suggest that they would add $5.3 trillion to the debt over a decade. And, Secretary Clinton, you have called for more than $1.65 trillion in new spending over that same period, and even with your substantial tax increases you would still add hundreds of billions to the debt. Yet, this country already faces a $19.7 trillion national debt. This year’s budget deficit will approach $600 billion, up almost $150 billion from last year. Simply put, we are out of money, and we couldn’t raise taxes enough to pay for all this even if that wouldn’t devastate the U.S. economy. Nor will cutting “fraud, waste, and abuse” balance the budget or reduce the debt. Real cuts will be necessary. With that in mind, can either of you name a single program that you would eliminate or reduce funding for?

How would you pay for the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare? The two biggest drivers of the national debt are Social Security and Medicare. Social Security is facing future shortfalls of more than $32 trillion. Medicare is even deeper in the red, with unfunded liabilities of more than $55 trillion. Mr. Trump, you have said that you are opposed to making any changes to these programs. Secretary Clinton, you have actually called for increasing Social Security benefits and want to add people ages 55–65 to Medicare. How do you plan to pay for these programs going forward?

What would you do to reduce poverty? Discussion of poverty has largely been absent from this campaign. We have more than 100 federal anti-poverty programs today. Since 1965, we have spent more than $22 trillion fighting poverty. Federal and state spending on poverty last year alone totaled nearly $1 trillion. Yet, more than 43 million Americans still live in poverty. Mr. Trump, you have hardly mentioned the issue. Secretary Clinton, your policies largely involve throwing more money at programs that have failed in the past. On the other hand, we know that policies like education reform, criminal-justice reform, and creating more jobs in high-poverty areas can make a big difference. What will you do to implement such reforms, and what will you do that we haven’t done before?

This campaign has deeply divided the American people. How would you bring us back together and unite the country? In the wake of this campaign, America is clearly divided along racial, gender, and class lines. Mr. Trump, you have tolerated, and even encouraged, some of the darkest forces on the American right. Racism and other forms of bigotry have become all too common in your wake. Now you have questioned the legitimacy of the election itself. Secretary Clinton, you have denigrated broad swaths of the American electorate, and once called Republicans your enemies on par with terrorists. Your “forward together” slogan is belied by your visible contempt for your political opponents. On both sides of this campaign, violence and threats of violence have become increasingly common, from near riots outside of campaign rallies to the firebombing of a Republican campaign headquarters in North Carolina. Mercifully, this campaign will soon be over. One of you will soon become president. What specifically will you do at that point to reach out to your opponent’s supporters and ensure that all Americans are treated with equal dignity?

With so many voters deeply disillusioned, even depressed, by this election, we might well benefit from a civil, substantive discussion of the issues that will face the next president. Alas, I’m not holding my breath.

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