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.

5. The Federal Reserve: With Congress deadlocked and incapable of agreeing to any fiscal policy regime, it's hard to remember a time when the Federal Reserve has been more important to the nation's economic health -- or more politically charged. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke's term expires in January 2014, meaning the next president will appoint a successor. Mitt Romney has already said he would not reappoint Bernanke. Ryan has strong (and fairly radical) ideas about the Fed. No candidate has been asked about the Fed, Bernanke, or quantitative easing.

6. Housing: Remember housing? The hugely important sector that brought the economy to its knees? You'd be forgiven for letting it slip your mind, since neither campaign wants to talk about it much. The Obama Administration has found that none of several efforts to aid the market has had much impact; Romney doesn't really have any ideas either. Biden and Ryan brought up the topic only in the course of discussing the mortgage interest-rate deduction. Romney blamed Dodd-Frank for making it hard to get a mortage; Obama vaguely praised the slow recovery of the sector. Neither moderator has made any attempt to push the candidates.

7. Jobs: Though we hear again and again that employment is the essential issue in the election, there's almost no substantive discussion of the matter. Asked about jobs last night, Joe Biden veered into a discussion of tax policy and the auto bailout; Paul Ryan repeated, mantra-like, that he and Romney had a five-point plan, without explaining what it was or how it would work. There was more discussion during the presidential debate, but neither candidate offered an explanation for how he would create the millions of jobs necessary to bring the nation back to pre-recession employment levels. As I've written before, neither candidate has a credible plan to create anything like the number Americans need.

8. The Euro Crisis: There is no more imminent danger to the American economy that the continued turmoil in Spain, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe. But has it come up in any debate? Romney mentioned Spain in passing, criticizing the country's large spending on government. Beyond that, there's been no discussion of what threat Europe poses, how either man would deal with Europe going forward, and how they would insulate the U.S. from contagion.

One can spin various theories for why these essential issues haven't been discussed. Social issues like abortion and gay rights seem to be viewed as somewhat vulgar by the Very Serious People in charge of the debates, but they're hugely important to many voters, especially in the Midwest. Voting rights, with its racial content, is a minefield they might just as soon avoid. The Fed and the European economy are rarefied subjects that are tough to discuss in a manner intelligible to average voters during the brief time slots allotted to answer questions. Climate change is thought -- perhaps wrongly -- to be a political loser among all but the Democratic base. Neither ticket has much to offer voters on housing or jobs. And neither of the first two moderators has been an economic-policy specialist. But time is running out: The final debate is on foreign policy, meaning there's only one chance, at next week's debate, to force Obama and Romney to reckon with these issues.

What else is missing? Look at the transcripts and judge for yourself.