Five critical questions for our next president

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  • Tiziana Dearing: There's a set of debate questions that transcend specific public policy issues
  • Answers to them could tell us a lot about what will happen when realities of governing set in, she says

Tiziana Dearing is a professor of social work at Boston College, the former head of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston, an anti-poverty activist, and a advocate for social justice. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The bizarro world that is the 2016 presidential race has kicked into high gear now that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are ready to face off in the debates beginning Monday night. It's hard to say any more what it means to "win" a debate when the discourse is so low, even while the issues are so important.

Tiziana Dearing
Sometimes, though, we get the clearest picture from 30,000 feet. There are a set of questions that transcend specific public policy issues, and the gutter in which those issues have been discussed. The answers to them could tell us a lot about what will happen when the campaign circus is over and the realities of governing set in.
I suggest that people listen for answers to the following five, in no particular order.

    1) What is the candidate's view on the future of work?

    The economy and the nature of work -- how and where it happens, what you get paid for it, what investments you have to make to get that work in the first place, even which jobs will go to the robots -- are in tremendous flux. What does each candidate envision as the future of work and how people will participate in the workforce?
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    Where do the burdens of things like education, childcare, benefits and job security lie? It's not clear how much critical thought either candidate has given this question, but we might catch glimmers of how they see the future of work unfolding.

    2) How does the candidate think about the health of the planet?

    I understand the question of global warming has -- unfortunately -- become a political football, so approaching that issue head-on may not be particularly revealing.
    But there is a planet, and we do live on it, and it does have a future. Is that on each candidate's mind? How much?
    Is there a general philosophy emerging from either about what role we should play in shaping that future over the next four to eight years?

    3) What does the candidate believe about humanity and our relationship to each other?

    So many public policy issues today are rooted in beliefs about dignity and obligation. Who inherently has and deserves dignity? Are we fundamentally obligated to each other as humans? If so, how should that manifest itself in the rules we establish and the investments we make?
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    Immigration policy, social welfare, environmental justice, global compacts and treaties, racial equity, even taxation itself — how a leader navigates all of these issues will depend fundamentally on how she or he perceives the nature of dignity and human obligation.

    4) What does the candidate believe makes us safe?

    National and homeland security issues are incredibly complex. What's more, we average voters can assume that there are gaping holes in our knowledge of what's really going on, especially as it relates to terrorism and foreign conflicts.
    But we can get a pretty clear understanding of what each candidate believes makes us safe.
    What comes first, force or diplomacy? Everyone talks tough, but which really has to be bigger, the carrot or the stick? Are we better off feared or beloved?
    The candidates don't follow predictable partisan paths on these questions. It's worth paying close attention.

    5) How am I, the voter, shaped in this election by my view of women?

    Like it or not, gender is a big factor in this race. Some people will vote for Clinton because she's a woman, and some won't for the same reason. Some will refuse to vote for Trump because of his history with women, and some won't care.
    The majority of people, however, will be somewhere in between. We're used to seeing a man in the role, not sure what a "presidential" woman should look like, and our culture tends to find a tough man impressive and a strong woman bitchy. A little self-examination will go a long way in filtering out gender influences so we can focus on the questions at hand.
    The candidates will say a lot in the next few weeks. If we've learned anything, it's to ignore most of it as campaign bluster. But what they believe will carry over into how they govern. The real revelations are there if we listen for them.