Experts offer questions for the Democratic Presidential debate

As we approach the first Democratic Presidential debate of the 2016 season, many are wondering how the candidates will respond to each other, which policies they will highlight, and most important: who will win.

However, in preparing for a debate, one person (or a few people) has the hardest job in media: the moderator(s). Tuesday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, and Dana Bash will join forces to quiz the Democratic field on their views on policy, politics, the Republican field, and each other. Putting together a slate of questions is as challenging as it is controversial. One can be assured some set of voters, certain campaigns, others in the media and the punditocracy will criticize moderators’ choices.

To offer some perspective (or perhaps an assist), I asked several scholars of politics and policy two basic questions about the Democratic debate. What is a question you would like to see asked in the debate (even if you don’t think it will be)? And why is that question important? This prompt elicited some great contributions from a diverse set of perspectives. I encourage you to read each, follow these experts on Twitter (their handles are included), and engage us in the comments section of this blog post about the questions you would like asked.

All too often in recent years the government has been paralyzed by partisan gridlock.  If you are elected President and face a Congress with both houses controlled by Republicans, do you think you can overcome the gridlock and, if so, how would you go about doing this?

Importance: Our country seems to be lurching from crisis to crisis, often because Congress appears unable or unwilling to act.  Bills that one might expect to have bipartisan support instead face almost united opposition from one party or the other.  If politics once slowed (it never stopped) at the water’s edge, it does no longer, and we are weaker internationally because we are so divided domestically.  Essential legislation like budget bills and bills to raise the debt ceiling have become occasions for ultimatums and hostage taking.  Republicans blame the Democratic President for the gridlock and the President blames Congressional Republicans.  As for me, I can only think of the line in the song from The King and I: “Unless some day somebody trusts somebody, there will be no one left on earth excepting fishes.”  There will be no more important task for the next President than building and extending the trust needed for effective government.  But perhaps it can’t be done.  I would like to know what the candidates think.

Richard O. Lempert, Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology Emeritus, University of Michigan Law School

If you were to be elected president but Republicans retained control of one or both houses of Congress, is there any reason to believe that your agenda would have any chance of being enacted into law and successfully implemented?

The public and much of the press vastly overstate what presidents can achieve legislatively by dint of their own leadership skills and personal qualities.  Yet very little of the campaign coverage actually focuses on how they would govern.  In this period of intense partisan polarization and vehement oppositional politics by a Republican Congress against a Democratic President, divided party government is a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution.  Will the Democratic candidates level with the public about this reality and identify a plausible strategy to regain a congressional majority?

Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow in Governance Studies, the Brookings Institution; resident scholar, Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Why has progress towards equality for black Americans stalled in recent years – in terms of income, wealth, and employment – and what should be done about it?

Importance: Recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere have shone a light on the halting of progress towards equality for black Americans. Hopes that economic growth and enlightened attitudes would do the job have been shattered. The 21st century has seen little or no reduction in gaps between black and white Americans in the key domains of wages, employment, family income, upward mobility, family formation and wealth. Incremental reforms do not seem to have worked thus far. As President Obama’s historic two-term Presidency draws towards its close, the future for black Americans remains center-stage in terms of opportunity and equality.

Richard V. Reeves, senior fellow in Economics Studies; policy director, Center on Children and Families; editor-in-chief, Social Mobility Memos, the Brookings Institution

Twitter: @RichardvReeves


Q:  Who should House Republicans select as the next Speaker of the House?

Importance: Barring an unanticipated wave election, Republicans will still control the House in 2017, making the next Speaker a key player in the kind of high-profile negotiations that often characterize important policy decisions.  Acting unilaterally without congressional approval is an option in many policy areas, but successful negotiations with Congress are a must in others.

Molly E. Reynolds, fellow, Governance Studies, the Brookings Institution

Twitter: @mollyereynolds

Q:  Please describe your philosophy and strategy for using domestic unilateral executive power.

Importance:  The expansion of unilateral powers under modern presidents has come at the cost of genuine interbranch bargaining and, often, public transparency in policy making.  The shift from candidate Obama’s dogmatic anti-imperial executive to President Obama’s “we can’t wait” strategy struck many as defensive at best and hypocritical at worst.  The conditions under which the next chief executive uses administrative rules, agency memoranda, signing statements, and executive orders can inform us about the potential alacrity of the next presidential administration.

Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor; Senator Don Henderson Scholar, Department of Political Science, University of Houston

Twitter: @bjrottinghaus

Q: Do you have a plan B for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Recent U.S. policy has focused on full conflict resolution, avoiding any major interim steps that fall short of full peace. After the failure of the Kerry peace initiative, and given widespread skepticism that a final status agreement can be reached in the near future, do you have a backup plan? Would you, as president, shift U.S. policy toward conflict management rather than conflict resolution, or would you try again to broker a full peace agreement?

Importance: Like his or her predecessors, the next president will likely expend a great deal of time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the end of the Kerry initiative, we have witnessed a bloody conflict in Gaza and now a wave of daily stabbings in Israel and the West Bank. The danger of another major flare-up in the short-term is severe. The next president will face a dilemma of balancing long-term conflict resolution and short-term conflict management.

Natan Sachs, fellow, the Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institution

Twitter: @natansachs

What is your position, and your specific proposal if you have one, on paid family leave?

Importance: The U.S. is the only advanced country that doesn’t offer paid leave as a matter of national policy.  Some states have shown the way (California, Rhode Island, New Jersey).  Both Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have made specific policy proposals but they are quite different.  The Clinton plan requires a three month leave paid for by an employee payroll tax. The Rubio Plan proposes a tax credit to small businesses that offer leave, presumably financed out of general revenue.  It is not clear what other candidates support, even as many voters trying to balance work and family life would like to know.  As a follow up, some other countries offer extra leave when fathers take it.  This has had positive effects on parental sharing of child care and father bonding with children. It would be important to ask candidates of that proposal, as well.

Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow, Economic Studies, the Brookings Institution

Twitter: @isawhill

Q: Given that all of you have proposed ambitious progressive agendas, and that Republicans are likely to maintain control of the House of Representatives, how do you plan to pass your ideas through Congress?  Or would you turn to executive action?  Are all of your proposals amenable to using presidential power?

Importance: While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both proposed ambitious progressive agendas, the Republicans are very likely to maintain control of the House of Representatives.  As we saw last week, most House Republicans are very conservative, and would have little use for the proposals of a Democratic administration.  While many presidents have successfully used executive action to get around Congress, that is not a panacea, especially on anything that involves taxes and spending.

Richard M. Skinner, adjunct professor of political science, the George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University

Twitter: @richardmskinner

Q: During the past two presidencies, we have seen a marked trend toward policymaking originating in the executive branch.  If you become President, how would you seek to extend or reverse this trend?

Importance: For many reasons—extreme polarization being the most important—we are increasingly governed by executive-initiated policies rather than new legislation.  Leading Democratic candidates have all served in Congress, but of course Hillary Clinton spent even more time in the executive branch as First Lady and as Secretary of State.  We should know whether and how candidates are planning to craft a functional relationship with Congress or whether they simply hope to bulldoze congressional opposition.

Philip Wallach, fellow, Governance Studies, the Brookings Institution

Twitter: @PhilipWallach

Q: Often times, presidential candidates select a running mate in order to balance a ticket. That balance is achieved by adding to the ticket a person who fills a gap or overcomes a candidate’s weaknesses. What are you looking for in a running mate and what weakness in your record will that person help overcome?

Importance: Until a choice is made, a presidential candidate almost never talks about who he or she is considering for a running mate. However, it is an important topic that every candidate devotes time and energy to. Understanding what a candidate is looking for in a Vice President also sheds light on where they perceive they need the most help. Regardless, it will make for an uncomfortable moment in which candidates have to think about their own shortcomings and electability.

John Hudak, fellow, Governance Studies; managing editor, FixGov blog, the Brookings Institution

Twitter: @JohnJHudak


Reminder: Tuesday’s first Democratic Presidential Debate will air on CNN at 9PM Eastern.