Blog No. 80. The Democratic “Debate” and Questions Not Asked

There is a broad consensus that Hillary Clinton won the Democratic “Debate.” We put the term in quotes because the event resembled not so much a debate as a joint press conference. With that qualification, we would not quarrel with the assessment that Ms. Clinton performed well and no doubt solidified her status as a front-runner. It is not that the other participants did poorly: they all seemed knowledgeable and well prepared, there were no egregious misstatements, and the event was happily free of personal sniping. Yet none of the others had the kind of breakout moment that each must have hoped for. All in all, the range of the conversation was, with few exceptions, from center left to far left and the interrogators asked few probing questions to get below the surface.

Given the cornucopia of commentary, we thought the most interesting exercise might be to note some questions that we hope might be asked in the next round. (The questions involve issues that Republican candidates will also have to address sooner or later.)


Middle East

ISIS  Is ISIS a threat not only to countries in the region, but to the United States? If so, how serious and immediate a threat is it? If it is a serious threat, are there no circumstances under which you would favor use of American ground troops to confront it?

Syria  Are you confident that ISIS can be defeated in Syria by a “coalition” that does not involve any American troops? If so, on what basis? How has the introduction of Russian military forces changed the dynamics in Syria and the Middle East, and how should we respond? Do you agree with Secretary Clinton that establishing a no-fly zone in Syria would be a way to “get the Russians to the table.” If so, explain. What would be the costs and risks in establishing a no-fly-zone? What could we expect to get from the Russians “at the table”?

Iraq  Are you confident that ISIS in Iraq can be defeated without the introduction of American ground troops? If so, on what basis? Can any military strategy, with or without American troops, be successful without reducing the level of hostility and mistrust between Shiites and Sunnis? Is there anything the United States can do to help reduce that hostility and mistrust? Should we be arming the Kurds and Sunni tribes directly, over the objections of Baghdad?

Afghanistan  President Obama has announced a halt to the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan from the present level of 9,800 and indicated that as many as 5,500 would remain until early 2017. Do you agree with this change in policy? Do you believe it is sufficient? Is there anything else you would urge? How important do you believe it is to keep Afghanistan out of the hands of the Taliban?

Iran  Of the Democratic candidates, only Senator Webb was critical of the Iran nuclear deal. Do you believe that the deal was the best the United States could have gotten? What steps would you take now to assure that Iran lives up to the deal? How important is it that Iran has recently conducted a ballistic missile test in violation of a U.N. Resolution? How would you respond?

Islamic Extremism  Do you regard Islamic extremism as a global problem? President Obama has refused to use the terms “Islamic extremism” or “Islamic jihad.” Do you agree with that refusal? If so, why?

Israel  President Obama has had an uncomfortable relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Do you view that as a significant problem for U.S. foreign policy and, if so, would you take steps to improve the relationship? Do you support a “two-state solution” and if so, do you think the U.S. has a continuing role in attempting to reach such a solution?


US National Security  In August, the outgoing Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, identified Russia as the “most dangerous” threat facing the United States—and that was even before the Russian deployments in Syria. Yet none of the Democratic candidates identified Russia as a major threat to our national security. Why do you think General Odierno is wrong?

Ukraine  None of the Democratic candidates mentioned Ukraine. Are you satisfied with the existing “frozen conflict”? If not, what additional steps would you take? Furnishing weapons to Ukraine? Imposing additional sanctions on Russia? Other?

Eastern Europe and NATO  Are you concerned that Russian actions in Ukraine may foreshadow similar actions in Estonia and Latvia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe? If such actions were to occur, are you satisfied that NATO has the military strength to respond appropriately and the political will to do so? What if anything should the United States do to strengthen NATO?


Refugees  Are you concerned that the flood of refugees from Syria and elsewhere may have serious implications for Europe from both an economic and national security standpoint? Do those implications extend to the United States? What, if anything, should we do to help? Should we offer to take some of the refugees, and if so, how many?


US National Security  Senator Webb appeared to be the only Democratic candidate to view China as a serious threat to our national security, referring to China’s actions in the South China Sea and cyberwarfare against the United States. Do you agree that China is a serious threat to national security and, if so, what would you do about it?

Defense Spending.

Sequestration  In August, General Odierno wrote “[T]he optimum size of the active-duty Army is 490,000 troops. But the fiscal gridlock surrounding the Budget Control Act of 2013, also known as sequestration, has already forced us to reduce Army forces to 450,000. If sequestration continues, we will be forced to reduce even further. At that point, the Army will be unable to fulfill its mission.” Do you agree with General Odierno’s assessment? If not, on what basis? Do you believe, as President Obama reportedly does, that sequestration should be ended for military spending, but only if it is lifted for domestic spending as well? Isn’t defense spending important enough to be considered on its own merits?



Do you believe our border security is adequate? If not, what steps would you take to better secure the border? If you believe in a “path to citizenship,” what steps do you see in that path? President Obama’s Executive Order deferring deportation of millions of illegal immigrants has been blocked in federal court. Did you approve or disapprove of the President acting by Executive Order?

National Debt

The Democratic candidates did not mention the national debt. The Congressional Budget Office warns that “the long-term outlook for the federal budget has worsened dramatically over the past several years” because of the recession, an aging population, and increasing health care costs. In 25 years, the CBO says, the debt will be larger than the gross domestic product — and higher even than after World War II. Is that a problem you would address? How?


Entitlement spending currently makes up 60 percent of the budget. Mandatory and interest spending will nearly double in the next 40 years due to population aging and rising health care costs. What would you do to rein in entitlement spending?


Taxing the Rich  According to the Tax Policy Center, if we wanted to fix the debt only by raising taxes on those making over $250,000, the top rate would need to be over 100%. Isn’t that an unworkable solution?

Tax Reform  There are many on both sides of the aisle who favor tax reform that would include eliminating or reducing many tax advantages or “loopholes.” Which ones would you favor? Deductions for charitable giving? Mortgage interest? Other? In addition to closing loopholes, Democrats generally favor higher tax rates on the “wealthy.” At what level would rates begin to increase? How high do you think rate increases should go? Is there any point at which you think higher rates would be either unfair or harmful to the economy? Have you calculated how much revenue would be derived from such rate increases?

Trade Policy

Secretary Clinton has said more than once that the Trans Pacific Partnership would be the “gold standard” for trade deals. [Note: And not as she put it in the recent debate, that she merely “hoped” it would be.] She now opposes it. If you oppose the TPP what specific provisions would have made it acceptable to you? Did you communicate that position to the trade representatives of the Obama Administration during the negotiations?

Gun Control

Gun shows and Background Checks  Secretary Clinton has proposed several gun control measures, the centerpiece of which is closing the “gun show loophole.” Is that likely to make a difference in light of a Department of Justice survey indicating that only 0.7 % of criminals apprehended with a gun had obtained the weapon at a gun show? [After careful analysis, Clinton’s claim that 40% of gun sales occurred at gun shows or over the internet and without a background check was awarded 3 Pinocchios in The Washington Post.] Are there any broader measures you would favor, such as requiring more thorough background checks by local law enforcement agencies as is the practice in some states?

Mental Health and Mass Shootings  In addressing the tragedy of mass shootings, many argue that mental health issues are more important than improving gun control. Do you agree that improved of detection and treatment of mental illness would be important in reducing the incidence of mass shootings? Do you have any proposals on how to do so?

Climate Change

All of the Democratic candidates, except Senator Webb, appear to favor aggressive action to meet climate change. The most detailed proposal appears on Governor O’Malley’s campaign website. Have you read O’Malley’s proposal and do you agree that it is a sound approach? Governor O’Malley might be asked what analysis he has made of the possible negative impact on the economy from implementing his plan. Do you agree with some who argue that action by America on climate change will accomplish little without major action from the rest of the world, in particular China and India? Senator Webb described the recent agreement with China for carbon reduction as “illusory.” Is Webb wrong? Why?


Education received relatively little attention from the Democratic candidates, but there are several important issues.

Pre-K Education  President Obama made an ambitious proposal for federal support of Pre-K education but Congress has failed to act. Part of the problem has been that past programs, including Headstart, have shown inconclusive results. Would you support proceeding with small-scale programs to test the effectiveness of different approaches?

K-12 Education  What do you see as the federal responsibility in relation to state and local responsibility? Common Core is very controversial among Republicans (and with many teachers and parents). What is your view?  Secretary Duncan supported charter schools against the opposition of teachers’ unions. What is your view? Secretary Duncan has opposed voucher programs although they have been supported by many minority leaders. What is your view?

College Education – Student Debt  Is there a crisis with respect to student loan debt or has it been exaggerated? A recent Brookings report indicated that “The hysteria surrounding much of the public discussion around student loan debt does not have a strong basis in reality…. [E]ducation debt levels have increased markedly over the last two decades, driven in large part by rising tuition levels and Americans obtaining more education (especially graduate degrees). But the typical household with debt is no worse off today than a generation ago, with increases in lifetime earnings more than offsetting increases in debt, and monthly payment burdens kept manageable by longer repayment periods.” Do you agree or disagree?


Police Techniques  In the past two years, there have been well-publicized instances, often involving minorities, in which the police appeared to use excessive force. Do you believe this is a widespread problem? Apart from a responsibility to initiate civil rights investigations in appropriate cases, what – if anything – can or should the federal government do to address the problem?

Sentencing  A sentencing reform bill was recently introduced in the Senate with support from a bipartisan group led by Senators Charles Grassley and Richard Durbin. Do you support that bill? Would you seek to change it significantly?

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The above questions were intended to cover a fairly wide range of subjects but are by no means exhaustive. We would encourage readers to offer their own suggested questions (or revisions to ours).

4 thoughts on “Blog No. 80. The Democratic “Debate” and Questions Not Asked

  • Ed Handler: many polls show Americans in general have little faith in Hon. H.Clinton's veracity. Is that view supported by her actions over the last 30 years? says:

    Many polls show Americans in general have little faith in Hon. H.Clinton’s veracity. Is that view supported by her actions over the last 30 years?

  • You left out Planned Parenthood and the extent of the federal government’s interest in this organization.

  • A comprehensive, well-considered list of questions that should be asked to presidential candidates of both parties in the future debates. Let’s hope there is more focus on a detailed discussion of key issues, rather than the concentration on personalities, attacks, and insults that has been allowed to exist (especially in the Republican debates), so that voters are better prepared to make an informed choice with more awareness of the likely consequences.

  • Yes, Yes this is all true. However, unlike the GOP debate that was more like a high school lunch fight, the Dems did avoid that and did focus on some issues and seemed far more grown up. The platform for campaign debates are more geared toward marketing a candidate than serious issues. I believe that issue statements published separately by the candidates makes far more sense than the media events we are subjected to. I would like to see more conversations focussed on the issues that are not driven by the need for ratings and sponsors. Campaigning/marketing a candidate is not governing.

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