The second round of Democratic presidential debates kicks off tonight, this time on CNN, with moderators Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon. Ten candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., will be on stage in Detroit tonight; another 10 (God help us!), including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., will debate tomorrow night.
The moments of drama and tension that tend to stand out from these televised events are, of course, those in which one candidate loudly clashes with another. Think Harris attacking Biden on race and busing; or Julián Castro lambasting Beto O’Rourke’s record on immigration. However, the moderators who pose the questions, and frame the discussions, also have a crucial role to play. Regular readers — not to mention viewers of my TV shows — will know that I am no fan of softball questions. I do, though, accept that the tightly regulated format of a TV debate — a format that assumes viewers are tuning in to hear from the 20 (!) candidates and not from the three moderators — makes sustained or in-depth interrogations of those politicians’ positions difficult, if not impossible.
Nevertheless, here are some topics and, ahem, tough(ish) questions that I’d like to see asked of the major candidates both tonight and tomorrow night. (Do feel free to suggest some of your own in the comments section below.)
For Kamala Harris: You’ve just introduced your own version of Medicare for All, which would allow corporations to offer competing health care plans. Yet in the last Democratic debate, on NBC in June, you raised your hand when asked if your health care proposal would “abolish” private insurance. And on this network in January, you said, “Let’s eliminate all of that.” What’s with the flip-flop? Also: The private insurance option you’re advocating is modeled on the Medicare Advantage plans that are available for seniors right now — but you are aware, aren’t you, that those plans have been accused of over-billing the U.S. taxpayer and denying claims to maximize profits?
For Sanders: You often point to opinion polls showing majority support for Medicare for All, while ignoring polls showing how that support plummets when voters are told it could lead to higher taxes. Isn’t implementing Medicare for All much harder than you make it out to be? Also: It failed in your own state of Vermont, didn’t it?
For Biden: Why are you borrowing Republican talking points to attack Medicare for All? You’ve said, for example, that seniors would lose “all the Medicare” they currently have — but that’s a lie, isn’t it?
For Warren and O’Rourke: You have accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of racism. As president of the United States, how would you push back against his racism?
For Biden: You’ve called Netanyahu a friend. Do you disagree, then, that he’s a racist?
For all of them except Sanders: Sanders said last week that he would “absolutely” leverage U.S. aid in order to put pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation. Why is he wrong? And what would you do, rhetoric aside, to get the Israelis to stop demolishing Palestinian homes, building illegal settlements, and killing protesters in Gaza?
For Biden: You often tout your unique experience as a former vice president and former senator. But as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, you dropped the ball in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, and as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you provided cover for President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. What’s the point of a long record in office if it’s one of failure and misjudgment?
For Warren: You used to be a registered Republican — and a “diehard conservative,” according to high school friends, and didn’t register as a Democrat until the age of 47. Why?
For Sanders and Biden: If elected, you’d be the oldest president in U.S. history — older than President Ronald Reagan when he left office, possibly suffering from dementia, in 1989. Should voters be worried about your physical or mental health? Also: Don’t Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama’s victories over the past four decades suggest that Democrats do better in presidential elections with younger, fresher candidates?
For O’Rourke: You lost an election for the Senate. And then decided to run for president. How does that make any sense?
For Pete Buttigieg: You’re the mayor of a small city in Indiana, which has a population of 102,000 and is in the midst of a controversy over race and police shootings. Shouldn’t that be the focus of your time and attention right now, rather than this long-shot bid to be the youngest, and one of the least-experienced, presidents in American history?
For Warren: You were the first major presidential candidate to come out in favor of impeaching President Donald Trump. Why do you think it is that the majority of Democratic presidential candidates still, even now, refuse to publicly call for an impeachment inquiry?
For all 20 candidates: As of right now, and assuming Bill Weld doesn’t pull off a political miracle, the Republican presidential candidate in 2020 will be Donald J. Trump. Do you buy the argument expressed by some in your party that an impeachment of Trump in the House of Representatives, followed by a failure to convict in the Republican-controlled Senate, would leave Trump in a stronger position against you next November?
Also: Fallible political calculations and 2020 hypotheticals aside, isn’t impeaching Trump … the right thing to do?