The Last Debate: What the Candidates Should Be Asked

In rounds One and Two of the presidential debates, more attention was on how Mitt Romney and Barack Obama presented themselves than on the specific policy points they were trying to make. You might say that a focus on atmospherics and performance is shallow-minded or willed by a politically obsessed press. I'd reply that for better or worse it is the way these encounters have always worked. Anything we don't already know about a tax plan or foreign-policy decision we're unlikely to learn during a debate. What we do have in these encounters is a chance to see how two candidates deal with each other, and with real-time pressure, and with sometimes unexpected questions or challenges.

Often third debates are less revealing on these personal-dynamics fronts, because each candidates has become familiar with the opponent's moves and the format as a whole. Sometimes actual points of policy force their way into our consciousness! Toward that end, a friend with a long career as a scholar of and participant in national politics sends this wish-list for the themes the candidates should be made to discuss. He writes:

 I wish you or your colleagues would convince Bob Schieffer to add defense topics to his announced list for the Monday debate.

Here's the list of broad topics issued by Schieffer:
  • America's role in the world
  • Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Red lines -- Israel and Iran
  • The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism -- I
  • The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism -- II
  • The rise of China and tomorrow's world
What's missing? Big stuff.
No questions on the Pentagon or defense spending -- a clear point of difference between the candidates.
No questions on the criteria for the use of force, whether in Iran or Syria or ... Mexico.
No questions on the war powers of the President, either regarding Iran or drones or targeted killings.
No questions on civil-military relations.

Maybe Schieffer will shoehorn some of these issues into his announced topics, or maybe the candidates will broaden their answers. I hope so. Otherwise, this will be a truncated and woefully inadequate one.

In a similar vein, William Astore, a retired Air Force officer who now teaches history, explains what he wishes the candidates would address:

Here's something I'd like to see this campaign season: our two major party candidates debating our wars rather than ignoring them. Both President Obama and Governor Romney prefer to praise the troops rather than to address the tragic consequences of continuing military action in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The latter, when they're addressed at all, are reduced to sound bites and homilies about the need to "stay the course" and "support our troops."

Praising our military while ignoring the wars we send them to is perhaps the biggest shame of American political discourse today (and that is indeed saying a lot). 

I'm not sure this is the biggest shame -- the absence of climate change from this "choosing our future" discussion is certainly a contender. But the problem Astore writes about is real. Dear Bob Schieffer: I know you'll prepare seriously for this discussion. But give a look to these suggestions as you do so.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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