Saturday, April 16, 2016

Getting passed the laundry list of issues approach to candidate debates

I confess to having watched not more than a few minutes of all the debates, in total.  Watching the little bit that my still sense of social obligation imposes on me, I readily get uncomfortable and feel the awkwardness of the situation getting the better of me.  I want to run away.  So I do.  I do spend more time reading the post mortems as seen by various pundits, but even there I find the discussion not very enlightening - the same point gets made over and over again - and lacking the perception that I wish were there.  Here is Amy Davidson writing in the New Yorker yesterday, perhaps one of the the better pieces that I've read, but still guided by this issue by issue approach to the debate. And here is a New York Times commentary on the front page, not the opinion section, which again has this issue by issue structure in breaking down the debate.

As a hypothetical, let me suggest an alternative structure.  In considering this it might help to envision yourself as moderator.   But here consider talking with one candidate first and then the other candidate entirely separately.  Indeed, consider the discussion akin to a job interview, which in some sense is what the debates are a proxy for.   I've had a fair amount of experience over the years with job interviews and what I say below is based in part on that.  Another part is based on what we know of the Presidency since President Obama assumed office.  How candidates view the recent past might be quite informative of what they will actually do if they were to attain the Presidency, much more so than simply arguing through an issues lists.  So consider the following.

In a piece from a few days ago entitled By Opposing Obama, the Republicans Created Trump, Steven Rattner does us a service by listing the many pieces of legislation that the Obama administration put forward and that would have benefited the White blue collar types who support Donald Trump (and the nation as a whole) but were blocked by Congress.  It's a good piece to read just to have in mind all this possible legislation.  Now let's juxtapose this with the observation that the President faced Republican obstruction from the get go, but that this obstruction got worse over time.  In 2009, the Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress.  In 2011, the House was controlled by the Republicans, many of whom were Tea Party candidates.  Then in 2015, both houses of Congress had Republican majorities.

If you assume that those majorities could not be influenced by a sitting President, then you might ask whether (a) the most important legislation got passed in those first two years when the Democrats had a majority in both houses or if some of the legislation that is mentioned by Rattner should have taken a priority over legislation that did make it  through, or (b) whether that Congress might have gotten even more throughput than it actually did in those 2 years.  I, for one, bemoan the fact that we still don't have a National Infrastructure Bank.   I want to note that infrastructure is on each candidate's list of issues, but where on the list does it appear?  It is the prioritization of the issue that is more important then exactly where the candidate stands on it.  But we learn nothing about prioritization from the debates.

Another question is whether it is possible to maintain control of Congress by doing an effective job when one does have the majority.  If so, might that imperative impact priorities on the issues?  How does one serve the American people and attempt to remain popular with the public at the same time?  FDR clearly did that.  What would it take to do that same thing now?

A next set of questions would entail what seems now the likely structure for the next Congress, with the Republicans still in control of the House but the Democrats taking back the Senate, though lacking a filibuster-proof majority (60 or more).   Would the candidate forecast gridlock as the primary outcome, so the President would need to rely on Executive Orders?  Or would the candidate participate in an effective sausage-being-made exercise, where legislation got through but with bits and pieces that both parties wanted?  This is a different sort of prioritization exercise, but it's not just about what the candidate prefers.  It is also about what the candidate can and cannot stomach that is currently being advanced by the other party.  And then there is whether this sort of thing should be made public in advance or if the candidate needs to hold their cards tightly on this until the situation arises.    So it would be good to inquire about how the candidate sees this possibility, without necessarily getting into specifics.

Here is a third set of questions.  It regards the relative importance of symbolic issues versus substantive actions (legislation and executive orders) and how the candidates view those two roles.   The current tone among the electorate seems one of anger fed by grievance.  In turn, the candidates themselves have embraced this tone.  (On the Republican side, clearly Trump and Cruz both have fanned the flames, while on the Democratic side, it seems the candidates have taken on this tone only as of late and then because the electorate wants them to do that and because the campaign is too long and brutal so the candidates are grouchy.)

So much for first campaigning in poetry and then governing in prose.  But if the campaign itself is now some juvenile form of prose, what about the tone when governing?  During the 2008 campaign before he became President, Barack Obama made his famous speech on race, a very mature talk that elevated the discussion on the issues.  But since he assumed office there haven't been further addresses of that type and he has taken a notably low key approach on the symbolic front.    There are obviously quite a few hot button issues now.  What philosophy will inform how the candidate would go about addressing those?

Every job interview that I have participated in has had a few minutes at the end where the candidate gets to ask questions about the job.  That probably doesn't make sense here, but an alternative might.  The alternative would be for readers to put themselves now in the role of the candidates and ask how they'd like the candidates to answer these questions. 

Most of the people I know who post about the election already have a preferred candidate.  Given that, perhaps they wouldn't want to think through these matters.  But if they could imagine going back in time perhaps 6 months or a year, before they had made up their minds, wouldn't they then agree that the sort of questions brought up here would be more useful to know than merely where candidates stand on the issues?

Let me make one more point and then close.  It regards how campaign promises influence what the new President does once in office.  As we all know, the situation is fluid and events can shape where the President focuses attention, as much or even more than prior disposition.  President Obama assumed office during a full crisis.   The first stimulus package that was passed was far from perfect legislation.  Nevertheless, it was necessary that some large package be put together quickly.   The American economy didn't suffer nearly as badly as the European economy as a consequence.   This legislation plus TARP (which happened under Bush II) created an enormous backlash, some of which was apparent immediately.   If something similar were to happen for the next President, it would then be human nature, after seeming to attend to the crisis, to return to planned legislation that had been promoted during the campaign.  The issue is whether further crisis management actually is warranted and indeed if that should have a higher priority than the previously planned legislation, in spite of mounting criticism.  How does the candidate determine that?

These are the sort of questions we should be asking.  Alas, these aren't the questions that we are getting.  The laundry list of issues approach falls far short of what we need to understand how the candidates would behave in office. 

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