On Thursday, Republicans will stage their first presidential debate, with Fox News picking the top 10 of the 17 announced candidates on the basis of their standing in the polls. By today’s count, Donald Trump, the current poll leader, will stand center stage, flanked by Jeb Bush and Scott Walker and then the other seven arrayed in order of their poll numbers. Trump’s notoriety may just garner Fox News the biggest primary debate audience ever.
Nervous Republican officials can take some solace that the debate is moderated by three Fox News stalwarts. They are unlikely to dwell on the irresistible questions raised by the absurdities that Republican candidates have offered up in the last months. Fox News anchors will no doubt try to get candidates to vent their venom on Hillary Clinton and President Obama rather than on each other. Candidates will have one minute to answer questions, time only for expressing an attitude, not a policy.
Some of the questions are already teed up. Trump has put immigration front and center. The Republican assault on Planned Parenthood will no doubt be aired. The Iran deal will be thrashed universally. Ritual pledges to repeal Obamacare are unavoidable.
Political pundits will be watching for Trump to erupt or Bush to unveil new Bushisms or Walker to strut over breaking unions. They'll be mapping minute differences between the candidates. But my advice – neither solicited nor likely to be followed – would be to pose questions that explore the yawning divide between these candidates and the vast majority of Americans. For example:
Inequality and stagnant wages
This is a central concern of Americans. The minimum wage today is $7.25 an hour, far below the poverty wage for a family of four. Cities and states across the country are acting to lift it. In 2014, voters in four red states – South Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas and Alaska – passed referendums to hike their minimum wages. Seventy percent of Americans agree.
Obama and all Democratic presidential candidates support raising the national minimum wage. Yet, Republican leaders in the House and Senate won’t even let it come to a vote in Congress. Wisconsin’s Walker has called the minimum wage a “lame idea” that he does not believe “serves a purpose.” A question on the minimum wage would be enlightening.
We’re running trade deficits of $500 billion a year, which contribute directly to stagnant wages and growing inequality. The vast majority of Americans, including Republicans, think our trade policies neither create jobs nor raise workers’ wages. Yet in the fierce debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, Republicans joined with Obama to give the president and his successor fast-track trade authority for the next five years.
That means that trade treaties like the TPP get an up-or-down vote in Congress with no filibuster and no amendments allowed. Trump has denounced our trade policy, while Bush has been a leading champion. The candidates should be asked how they would change our trade policy to end ruinous deficits.
Our infrastructure is decrepit and increasingly dangerous. The American Society of Civil Engineers now gives U.S. infrastructure a grade of D+, estimating it would cost $3.6 trillion in the next five years simply to bring it up to snuff, and much more to modernize it. Americans say investment should be a high priority. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO call for increasing what we spend on infrastructure.
But Republicans in Congress won’t raise the gas tax and oppose other taxes to fund improvements. So they are left with patching together a two- or three-year extension that doesn’t begin to deal with the challenges we face. The candidates should be asked if they support a major initiative to rebuild the United States – and if so, how they would pay for it.
What’s the matter with Kansas?
Republicans have argued for decades that lower taxes, less government spending and less regulation would boost the economy. In Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback championed that program, promising that zeroing out taxes on most businesses, cutting top rates and slashing spending would generate growth, jobs and revenue.
The result has been deficits as far as the eye can see, with Republicans in the state legislature now scrambling for ways to raise taxes. The candidates should be asked what’s the matter with Kansas – and how that has informed their agenda.
Most Americans are bothered by the sense that the rich and corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Obama has urged passage of the Buffett Rule that no millionaire should pay a lower tax rate than his or her secretary.
Would these candidates be willing to raise taxes on the wealthy? Would they support a minimum tax on corporations like GE that often end up paying nothing in taxes while earning billions in profits? Would they act to shut down tax havens and tax multinationals at the same rate as domestic businesses?
Young people in the United States are the best educated generation yet seem likely to end the worst off. Their incomes are sinking as their educational achievement is rising. This year’s college graduates left with student debts averaging more than $35,000. They are less able to buy homes, more likely to postpone getting married or starting a family.
Obama has urged making two years of college tuition free. Would these candidates support that? What would they do to return to “debt-free college?”
Catastrophic climate change
2014 is officially the hottest year on record. Extreme weather costs billions each year. The Pentagon calls climate change an “urgent and growing” national security threat. Scientists say we must act now to limit global warming or it will be too late. A large majority of Americans (62 percent) agree that it is an urgent threat requiring immediate and drastic action.
Republicans have largely been in denial, accusing Obama of a “war on coal” and claiming that meeting the challenge of climate change would wreck the economy. Ask them if they agree with the Pentagon on the threat? And whether they agree that we are on the verge of a green industrial revolution that the United States should lead, not lag behind.
Incarceration and police brutality
Americans have been stunned by the blizzard of reports about unarmed African Americans being killed by the police. #BlackLivesMatter has forced the injustice of our criminal justice system into the public debate. Newt Gingrich and many Republican governors are pushing for ending mandatory sentences for non-violent offenders and reducing our prison population.
Obama has called for body cameras on police officers. There’s a backlash saying the police are being treated unfairly. These candidates should be asked what concrete reforms they would support to insure equal justice under the law to all Americans.
Americans are increasingly cynical about U.S. politics, and dismayed by big money that now dominates our politics. On the Republican side, according to the New York Times, just 130 donors have contributed over half of all the money raised by June to candidates and their super PACs.
These candidates should be asked if they think big money in our politics is a problem. If so, what would they do to limit its influence? Would they support requiring that all donations for any organization active in the political campaign season be released to the public? Would they agree to call on their super PACs and associated 501(c)(4)s to release their donors and the size of their donations?
Beyond the expected questions on the Islamic State and Iran, commentators might probe views on the growing cold war between the United States and Russia: Eight of 10 Americans can’t locate Ukraine on the map. Republican candidates – with the exception of Rand Paul – have generally combined bellicose rhetoric with calls for arming the Ukrainian government.
Do they think the United States has vital national security interests at stake in the Ukrainian conflict? Should the United States be prepared to go to war with Russia if the conflict continues to escalate? If not, shouldn’t we seek to settle the crisis, not exacerbate it?
The pundits will watch the debate like fans at a NASCAR race, waiting for the smash-ups. But the real news for Republicans isn’t who survives the fray. The real news is how divorced their consensus is from the needs of the country and common sense of most Americans.
Vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Washington Post, and is editor and publisher of The Nation magazine.