Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Many heads turned when the moderators of the fourth Democratic debate ended the three-hour extravaganza with this: “…we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.” The question, it was explained, stemmed from a recent controversy that arose when some objected to Ellen DeGeneres sitting and laughing with former President George W. Bush, whose policies while president were anti-LGBTQ. The question was designed to use a high-profile current event to take the measure of the candidates’ values.
And to be sure, there is some virtue in voters seeing how candidates perform in real time. While the substance of their responses rarely sheds much light on how they would do in office, we get to see how a person would perform in the campaign arena.
It was intended as a fun and revealing question – but it also revealed something concerning about the substance of our debates: the issues they confront too often reflect a strong bias toward the here and now.
Rather than encouraging conversations about big, long-term challenges that the nation faces, the discussion too often veers toward what is currently on the minds of viewers. Questions focus on the issue of the week – the latest controversy coming out of Washington or stories that have broken in recent days – rather than the urgent concerns of our times.
We need instead to be discussing the entrenched problems that we have failed to tackle. As a nation, red and blue, we need to hear how a candidate thinks about these if we are to really evaluate what they would want to do with their power, should they win.
What should immigration policy look like in the 21st century? How would they define the limits of presidential power? Will internationalism continue to be a priority – in terms of policy and institutions – over the next decade? What are the steps that need to be taken to curb the devastating effects of climate change? How can the federal government start to reverse the growing economic inequality that defines our country? How can we begin a new phase of the civil rights movement that deals with institutional racism? What are the key goals in the pursuit of women’s full equality? How can we do more to ensure that people are not discriminated against because of their sexuality? What is the proper role of government in taxing and regulating the economy?
The history of great leadership revolves around moments when US presidents have been able to tackle these sorts of challenges. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman defeating the forces of fascism and participating in the establishment of institutions such as the United Nations and NATO that entrenched liberal alliances; Lyndon B. Johnson pushing through Congress federal policies that ended the plight of elderly Americans lacking health care, and Ronald Reagan figuring out an arms agreement that helped break down the Cold War. When presidential historians talk about legacies, this is what we are talking about.
Of course the current state of politics is not favorable to big policy breakthroughs. The odds are that there will only be short windows, at best, where the next president has an opportunity to go big and bold. But that is what our debates need to address. This is really the only way to test the mettle of an individual’s leadership skills. It is easier to condemn President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria than it is to offer a comprehensive argument about why internationalism remains vital in the current age.
We can’t always depend on candidates to go there. The instinct of anyone running for office – and their advisers – is to put all their energy in viral moments that will resonate in the social media, cable television environment that privileges instant gratification, breaking news, and likes and retweets.
The party leaders who agree on the framework and the moderators who handle the actual conversation must make sure that candidates are pushed into this sort of conversation. As a nation, it is clear that we are in desperate need of great leaders. We face an enormous number of problems and crises that keep going unaddressed from one administration to the other. The debates should offer a first forum for voters to hear what a potential president has to say about how we can get out of these messes.