8 Key Issues Missing From the Debates So Far

From gay marriage to jobs, the Federal Reserve to women's health, candidates have dodged some of the most important questions facing the United States.


The reviews are in and, with the exception of a few right-wing commentators, everyone thinks Martha Raddatz did a great job moderating the vice-presidential debate Thursday. At the very least, she was better than Jim Lehrer, who ineffectually sat on stage during the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But both debates have skipped over serious, important issues, and have given too little attention, or the wrong kind of attention, to others. Conor Friedersdorf noted the total absence of discussion about civil-liberties issues at the first debate, a pattern that continued Thursday night. But there are plenty more missing. Here's a catalogue of them, in no particular order:

1. Gay Marriage and Gay Rights: As my colleague Steve Clemons noted, there was no mention of gay marriage in Thursday night's debate, even with Joe Biden -- who precipitated President Obama's public support for it -- on stage. There was no mention during the first debate, either; nor was there any discussion of don't ask, don't tell. This despite the fact that a sitting president has for the first time called for gay marriage and that the country is nearly evenly divided on whether it should be legal. There are major ballot issues on same-sex marriage coming up in November in Maryland, Minnesota, Maine, and Washington State. There's a good chance that the Supreme Court will take up gay marriage in the coming term. And same-sex marriage is one of the issues on which the difference between the two campaigns is most stark.

2. Abortion and Women's Health: The last two years have seen pitched battles over reproductive health, both at the federal level -- where the Obama Administration mandated that all employers cover birth control, to heated opposition from Catholics and evangelicals -- and at the state level, where states have tried to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and passed laws significantly narrowing access to abortion and attempting to require procedures such as transvaginal ultrasounds. But there was no mention of this in the first debate; in fact, as Emily Chertoff noted, neither candidate even said the word "women." Raddatz did a little better, asking a question about abortion late in the vice-presidential debate, but as National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru points out, her decision to frame it in terms of a personal faith matter significantly affected the way Biden and Ryan answered the question. Ryan briefly, but importantly, stated that a Romney Administration would support a ban on abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother; Biden briefly, but importantly, noted that control of the Supreme Court and with it Roe v. Wade was in the balance. But there was little further discussion of women's reproductive health as a policy matter.

3. Voting Rights: Efforts to restrict voting are sweeping across the country, an epidemic Andrew Cohen has exhaustively chronicled. Supporters say the laws are essential to prevent voter fraud, although they have produced no evidence that fraud is a widespread issue. Opponents argue that such laws are mostly an effort to suppress minority votes. In Ohio, the Obama campaign has battled the state secretary of state Jon Husted, a Republican, in court over early voting -- which Husted himself stated mostly benefit "urban -- read African-American" communities. Regardless of the position one takes, voting is one of the most fundamental rights Americans enjoy. But the laws and resulting court cases haven't been mentioned once.

4. Climate Change: During his nomination-acceptance speech, Mitt Romney went out of his way to sneer at those worried about global warming. During his nomination-acceptance speech, Barack Obama went out of his way to note that climate change was not a hoax. But the only mention of temperatures in both debates came when Joe Biden and Paul Ryan bickered over the fighting season in Afghanistan on Thursday. Voters deserve to know why, if Obama thinks warming is so important, he has almost entirely dropped any policy push on it. And they deserve to know why Romney, once a staunch climate-change warrior, now can't even say whether he believes there's man-made warming occurring.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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