Debate moderators overlook key questions
Through 17 debates this year, roughly 1,500 questions have been asked of the two parties' presidential candidates. But only a small handful of questions have touched on the candidates' views on executive power, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, or other civil liberties concerns. (A description of those questions appears at the end of this column.)
Only one question about wiretapping. Not a single question about FISA.
There has, however, been a question about whether the Constitution should be changed to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger to be president.
Not one question about renditions. The words "habeas corpus" have not once been spoken by a debate moderator. Candidates have not been asked about telecom liability.
But there was this illuminating question, asked of a group of Republicans running for president: "Seriously, would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?"
Though Republicans often claim that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of Americans is necessary to prevent "another 9-11," debate moderators have not once asked candidates about recent revelations that suggest the administration began its surveillance efforts long before the September 11, 2001, attacks, not in response to them.
But NBC's Brian Williams did ask the Democratic candidates what they would "go as" for Halloween.
No moderator has asked a single question of a single candidate about whether the president should be able to order the indefinite detention of an American citizen, without charging the prisoner with any crime.
But Tim Russert did ask Congressman Dennis Kucinich -- in what he felt compelled to insist was "a serious question" -- whether he has seen a UFO.
No moderator has asked a single question about whether the candidates agree with the Bush administration's rather skeptical view of congressional oversight.
But Hillary Clinton was asked, "Do you prefer diamonds or pearls?"
That last question came from an audience member at the end of the November 15 Democratic debate. It turns out, as first reported by Marc Ambinder, that the questioner would have preferred to ask a substantive question, but CNN only offered her the opportunity to ask about jewelry.
As Ezra Klein has noted, this is particularly shocking in light of the fact that the cable channel has made a big deal about the Clinton campaign planting a question about global warming in an audience recently. Planting questions about the future of the earth? Bad. Prompting someone to ask the first woman to have a legitimate chance of being elected president about jewelry preferences? That's just good television.
Incidentally, this isn't the first time CNN has gotten caught prompting an audience member to ask a frivolous question during a debate. According to a November 11, 2003, Associated Press report:
A college student who asked the Democratic presidential candidates at a debate whether they preferred the PC or Mac format for their computers says the question was planted by CNN.
The news network acknowledged Tuesday that a producer went "too far" in telling Brown University student Alexandra Trustman what to ask.
In an editorial written for the Brown Daily Herald, Trustman said she was called the morning of the debate and given the topic of the question CNN producers wanted her to ask.
Trustman said she was "confused by the question's relevance," and constructed her own question "about how, if elected, the candidates would use technology in their administrations."
But when she arrived in Boston for the debate, Trustman wrote, "I was handed a note card with the Macs and PCs version of Clinton's boxers or briefs question" and told she couldn't ask her question "because it wasn't lighthearted enough and they wanted to modulate the event with various types of questions."
There are few matters more significant to the nation's future than whether the Bush administration's assumption of broad powers once considered to be the domain of dictators rather than presidents will prove to be a temporary condition, like the internment of American citizens during World War II, or the beginning of a sustained slide into totalitarianism, as described in recent books by Joe Conason and Naomi Wolf.
These are serious times. There is no guarantee that the next president will quietly abandon the Bush administration's embrace of torture and wiretapping and detaining people without charging them with crimes. There is no guarantee that the next president will ignore Bush's precedent and treat Congress as an equal branch of government. The political media's shocking indifference to these matters suggests that they think the nation will simply and spontaneously return to normalcy the moment George W. Bush leaves office, governed once again by the laws and principles and freedoms that have long constituted America's essential qualities.
But this is by no means a certainty, and helping Americans understand the approach the various candidates would take to these matters is perhaps the most important thing the media can do over the next year.
It's easy to imagine one excuse some journalists will offer for ignoring these matters: The American people just don't care about habeas corpus and wiretapping. They care about "likability" and whether they'd enjoy having a candidate "in their living room" for the next four years and whether candidates are "comfortable in their own skin." They just don't care about things like the Constitution.
That's bunk. Pure bunk, as recent polls demonstrate.
According to a poll conducted for the ACLU in October, 61 percent of Americans think the U.S. government should have to get a warrant before wiretapping conversations between American citizens and people in other countries -- and 51 percent strongly think that. Only 35 percent think the government should be able to perform such a wiretap without a warrant; only 24 strongly feel that way.
As The Mellman Group, which conducted the poll, explains, there is "both deep and wide" support for the notion that the government must get a warrant before wiretapping phone calls:
Support for this constitutional right is both deep and wide, cutting across every demographic segment. Whether they are old or young (age 60+ 53% warrants required, age 50-59 60%, age 40-49 64%, age 18-39 65%), more or less educated (post-grads 59% warrants required, college grads 61%, some college 63%, high school or less 60%), black or white (black 72% warrants required, whites 58%), upper class or lower (upper/upper-middle 62% warrants required, middle 57%, working/lower 68%) voters favor requiring warrants for government wiretaps of Americans' international conversations. Indeed, there is no segment of the electorate other than Republicans and conservatives among whom support for requiring warrants is less than 53%. Seventy-four percent (74%) of Democrats, 60% of independents, and even 46% of the President's own Republicans oppose tapping Americans' international conversations without a warrant.
Public demand for requiring warrants for government wiretaps of Americans' international conversations also cuts across geography. Large majorities in every part of the country favor requiring warrants: 66% in the West, 61% in the Northeast, 60% in the Midwest, and 58% in the South.
The same Mellman Group poll found that 75 percent of Americans -- three out of four -- think it is important for Congress to "take action now to require the government to get a warrant before wiretapping the international phone calls and emails of American citizens." Just as striking is the intensity of support for this position -- 48 percent of Americans say it is "very important" for Congress to take such action, while only 22 percent say it is "not too important" or "not at all important" (and only 12 percent say it is "not at all important").
The Mellman Group further found that only 28 percent of Americans said the following statement would be a "very convincing" reason to vote against a member of Congress: "The Member voted to make it harder to stop terrorism by requiring the government to get a warrant every time they wanted to wiretap the phone of an American they thought might be helping the terrorists." They added:
Going deeper, we explored whether a vote requiring individual warrants would call into question a Member's commitment to the war on terror. The answer was a resounding no. Just 36% said they would worry that a candidate who "took the view that wiretapping American citizens should require an individual warrant from a court ... was not tough enough to deal with terrorism." A 56% majority would not worry about a candidate's ability to deal with terrorism as a result of such a position.
Another recent poll, this one conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart, found:
1. Majorities of American voters want the next president to support all five of the ACLU's core initiatives to restore the Constitution -- restoring habeas corpus, closing GITMO, not allowing the president alone to determine who is an enemy combatant, ending torture as U.S. policy, and outlawing eavesdropping on Americans without a court warrant.
2. A large number of voters are unhappy that Congress has not done enough to check the president and protect our constitutional rights. Many more voters believe that Congress has not done enough (49%) compared to only one in four (25%) who believe Congress has interfered too much with presidential power, and 24% who believe Congress has done a good job working with the president.
And just this month, a CNN poll found that 69 percent of Americans consider waterboarding to be torture and that 58 percent think the U.S. government "should not be allowed to use this procedure to attempt to get information from suspected terrorists."
The American people take these things seriously. It's time for the journalists who determine what the candidates have to talk about to begin to take them seriously, as well.
At least as seriously as questions about Halloween costumes, UFOs, and jewelry.
Summary of questions about presidential powers, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, civil liberties, and other related matters:
- During the May 3 GOP debate, MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked candidates if they would support a constitutional amendment to allow California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who was born in Austria, to be president.
- During the May 15 Republican debate sponsored by Fox News, candidates were asked whether "enhanced interrogation techniques to include, presumably, water-boarding" should be used.
- During the July 23 CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, candidates were asked, "Most Americans agree it was wrong and unconstitutional to use religion to justify slavery, segregation, and denying women the right to vote. So why is it still acceptable to use religion to deny gay Americans their full and equal rights?"
- During the August 5 GOP debate, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked the candidates a question submitted by a viewer: "What authority would you delegate to the office of vice president? And should those authorities be more clearly defined through a constitutional amendment?"
- During the September 5 Fox News GOP debate, Fox's Wendell Goler asked a question about "ending abortion as a two-step process -- rolling back Roe v. Wade, which would leave it legal in some states, and then a constitutional amendment to ban it nationwide."
- During the September 5 debate, Fox's Carl Cameron asked about a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
- During the September 5 debate, Goler asked about wiretapping mosques "even without a judge's approval."
- During the September 5 debate, Goler asked, "Would you approve the use of torture if you felt it would prevent a terrorist attack?"
- During the September 5 debate, Goler asked, "[D]o you feel President Bush may have overreached his constitutional authority in some actions after the 9-11 attacks?"
- During the September 5 debate, Goler asked about the Defense Department's detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.
- During the September 5 debate, Goler asked, "On the issue of executive power, would you grant your vice president as much as authority and as much independence as President Bush has granted to Vice President Cheney?"
- During the September 26 Democratic debate, NBC's Tim Russert asked candidates whether they would support a "presidential exception to allow torture."
- During the October 9 GOP debate, MSNBC's Matthews asked whether it would be constitutional to give the president a line-item veto.
- During the October 9 GOP debate, Matthews asked candidates if they thought they would need congressional approval to take military action against Iran.
- During the October 21 GOP debate, Fox's Cameron and Brit Hume asked about a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
- During the November 15 Democratic debate, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked candidates if "human rights [are] more important than American national security?"
- During the November 15 Democratic debate, an audience member asked about post-9-11 profiling of "hundreds of thousands of Americans." Blitzer followed up by asking about the PATRIOT Act.