What the Debate Moderators Should Ask

The Republican candidates for president will gather on a stage in Cleveland, Ohio, tomorrow evening for the first official debates of the 2016 campaign — the main event at 9 p.m. Eastern time for the ten candidates with the highest standing in the polls, and an earlier debate, at 5:30 p.m., for the others. Even with not all the candidates on the stage at one time, each candidate can expect no more than ten to twelve minutes to make his or her case. During that time, we can expect the moderators to cover the usual ground: SIL and the War on Terror, immigration, taxes, gay marriage, Obamacare. In response, most of the candidates will regurgitate their talking points and stump speeches. The outcome will likely be decided on the basis of who makes the best quip or the biggest gaffe.

But there are some other, more basic questions that I wish someone would ask.

What is the purpose of government? Is government a tool to achieve your goals, or are there limits to what it can and should try to do? For instance, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee see government as arbitrating, teaching, or enforcing moral values. Ben Carson and Donald Trump want government to create jobs. Nearly all the candidates see themselves as fighting for or protecting the middle class. But how do these goals comport with constitutional or philosophical limitations on government?

Can you cut the size and cost of government without offending anyone or cutting programs that have popular support? GOP candidates talk about balancing the budget and reducing our ruinous $18.2 trillion national debt, but they seldom say how. Too often they simply pretend that you can balance the budget through economic growth or by trimming “fraud, waste, and abuse.” At the Voters First Forum this Monday, only Rick Perry used the words “cutting spending.” A few other candidates, including Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker, gingerly discussed the possibility of entitlement reform. But by and large, the acknowledgment of the need for spending restraint has been missing from the campaign trail. Some of the candidates, like Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, have actually come out against entitlement reform, and most of the candidates have been far more comfortable talking about areas where they would increase spending, such as defense or farm programs.

Are you pro-business, pro-jobs, or pro-market? No doubt most Republicans are much more attuned to the needs of the business community than most Democrats. But as Milton Friedman once said, “Business corporations in general are not defenders of free enterprise. On the contrary, they are one of the chief sources of danger.” Too many businesses favor corporate welfare, regulations that impede their competitors, and bailouts if they fail. TARP, the Export-Import Bank, and Donald Trump’s use of eminent domain to seize private property for his own use are classic examples. Nor does a free market always protect jobs or wages, especially in the short term. After all, in a free market, companies can lay people off, move overseas, or hire immigrant labor. Yet, in the long run, free markets will lead to both more freedom and more prosperity than any measure of government intervention. What are the candidates’ priorities?

When and under what conditions should the Supreme Court overrule legislative actions or popular majorities? Republicans have long preached judicial restraint. But what exactly does that mean? It is one thing to oppose judicial activism that is untethered to the text or meaning of the Constitution. Liberal courts in the past have often seemed to invent “rights” out of whole cloth. But the conservative reaction, which grants a presumption of constitutionality to both laws and executive actions, has gone too far in the other direction. Now, judicial activism is too often defined as a decision that strikes down any law that Congress or a state legislature has passed. But the judiciary was intended to be, as James Madison put it, “the bulwark of our liberties.” Are there times when the courts should strike down duly passed laws because they violate fundamental rights?

How would you balance civil liberties with the War on Terror? There is always a tension between keeping us safe and respecting our liberties. Several candidates, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie, have passionately defended NSA surveillance measures, while Rand Paul and, to a lesser degree, Ted Cruz have been skeptical. Lindsey Graham has suggested that a U.S. president could use drones to kill American citizens on American soil for simply “thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL.” How do candidates feel about detention without charges and enhanced interrogation? Are there limits to how far government can go in fighting the War on Terror? No doubt it would be easier to catch potential terrorists (and criminals) if we didn’t have to bother with little things like our constitutional rights. But that would make America a very different country.

What is your concept of federalism? All the GOP candidates give lip service to the idea of federalism, but what does that really mean? When should federal action override state decisions? What happens when state governments do things you disagree with? For example, Chris Christie has said that he would overrule states that have chosen to legalize marijuana. On the other hand, should states be able to restrict a citizen’s basic constitutional rights? Do states, in fact, have rights, or do they only have powers, while citizens have rights? Are there limits on what states can do? Are there limits on what the federal government can require states to do?

In exercising military force, what are America’s national interests abroad? Defense, of course, is a legitimate function of government, and we clearly live in a dangerous world. But, in deciding when and where to intervene, what criteria would you use? Should we intervene to prevent genocide? Because an ally is threatened? To promote democratic values? Or only if we are directly threatened? How would these criteria apply to recent U.S. interventions in Syria? Libya? Iraq? What about future hotspots like Ukraine or the South China Sea? Some candidates, such as Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, have supported U.S. action in all these cases, and in some cases pushed for more. On the other end of the spectrum, Rand Paul has been skeptical of U.S. intervention (outside of fighting ISIL). Where do the other candidates fall?

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Too often, political debates focus on the passions and issues of the moment. That’s understandable, but most often it ends up with candidates telling us what we want to hear. And the specific issues we face today are often very different from the ones we will face two or three years into a president’s term. That’s why I hope the debate moderators will forgo the usual laundry list of issues, and press the candidates on the fundamental beliefs and principles that would guide them when an unexpected crisis erupts.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis.