Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Debate Questions

There's been a lot of talk about debate question topics -- the Wonkblog gang yesterday did a nice item about the five most important issues not raised in the debates (housing, Europe, climate, Fed/SCOTUS appointments, campaign finance; I think the first four are good choices). I was wondering in particular about climate, and started thinking about 1996: after the failure of Bill Clinton's health care reform plan, did health care get as little attention that year as climate did after the demise of cap-and-trade?

And...nope. Turns out that in the first presidential debate there was a general question about health care, and in the second there was one general question and then a second one about managed care. And that's not to mention that Medicare was perhaps the most talked about topic over the debates that year.

So, basically, I'll toss in a negative finding for those who were concerned about this: there is no historical pattern in which a failed presidential initiative on a major issue leads to that issue disappearing from the issue agenda, at least as measured by presidential debate topics.

Now, that said, I pretty much liked the format this year which allowed the candidates to go back and forth during a block of time devoted to discussion topics. It meant fewer topics covered, I think, but more time for them to talk. And I don't really care much if any particular issue, no matter how important, isn't included, although from the point of view of critiquing the moderators I suppose I'm for more important rather than less important issues. But at any rate, I suspected that the absence of climate in the debates this year might have to do with the history of the last four years, and it turns out my guess wasn't supported by the evidence.


  1. Part of it's probably an artifact of how these sorts of things get broken down into categories. "Energy" was talked about a modest amount during the debates, but the environmental side of the issue (such as global warming) was largely ignored. "Energy" is an issue which effects most people in a fairly direct way, as is health care. But Environmentalism, especially environmental issues which are long term rather than short term issues, is a more abstract concept for voters to wrap their heads around, and therefore easier to shuffle aside when it seems inconvenient to talk about.

  2. I, for one, considered climate change "covered" in a similar vein to how UG did. Not that I was AT ALL pleased with the responses either gave, but I also think the silence on climate change was just the acknowledgment of the reality that people actually believe that environmental regulation costs jobs. The sad truth for me on climate change is that Republicans have won this debate, and they won it a long time ago.

  3. Can we put the political nitty-gritty a bit more clearly? Speaking generally, Democrats adopted the Republican's idea of cap-and-trade in the 2007-9 time frame; but of course, trying to pass it in 2009, they saw Republicans then turn on cap-and-trade and demonize it as a tax raise and a job-killer. Being wimpy moderate Democrats, they had no answers to these objections and no fortitude for any further fight. With tens of millions of Obama voters in '08 failing to turn out in '10, the Republicans tightened their (effective) control over Congress. So the Democratic party just walked away from the issue, and refuse to mention it to this day.

    "Issues" become questions in high-profile debates when a party or a significant faction is pushing those issues. Democrats are not just lying low on all climate change issues, they are avoiding such issues and running away from them as fast as they can (and here in Oregon, our Democratic leaders are proposing mandatory logging - i.e. accelerated climate change -- that even the timber & construction industries don't need, as a short term fix for rural counties that can't raise taxes on their tea-party constituents).

    So that's why no one asked those questions, the Democrats did not want them asked.

  4. I agree with the above. And would add that this is further mis-framed, when one realizes that most of Obama's fairly emphatic mentions of "clean energy" came within the context of answers in which he laid out a story that once growth and jobs further return, he will be pressing for further progress on long-term investments, education, an overhaul of the country's energy sources, etc. The Democrats have been addressing climate change throughout in the politically smart manner. You don't get policy change without political strategy, and they have a very clear one: manage a return to growth worthy of the name "recovery" and then press forward with environmentalist goals, once it won't fall on deaf ears or become associated with callowness toward immediate lower/middle-class challenges. Obama's campaign is considering climate change holistically; many people bemoaning him aren't really providing a better political strategy and they're being disingenuous when they state that Obama isn't addressing the issue.

  5. Climate crisis deniers are crowing that the absense of any mention of it for the first time since 1988 or so means the issue is settled--it's a hoax. Most Americans don't agree, not to mention the reality, but politically it is the dog that didn't bark. If you live near a coast, you know it's also not abstract or in some misty future.

    I missed questions that were fairly standard in the primary debates and now in some state debates: the Supreme Court. And the key foreign policy question that was never asked: who do you count on for foreign policy advice?


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