5 Tough Questions for Tonight’s Democratic Debate

5 Tough Questions for Tonight’s Democratic Debate

5 Tough Questions for Tonight’s Democratic Debate

Let’s talk about making the “gig economy” fair, creating a postal bank, congressional authorization for war, and helping, rather than harming, immigrants.


The first Democratic debate of the 2016 campaign is coming too late—more than two months after the Republicans began debating. Yet it could be far more illuminating than the GOP altercations. The Democratic debate in Las Vegas will feature a group of candidates who have all debated before; they have genuine differences in style, emphasis, and positions. The debate is unlikely to feature a clash of personalities along the lines of the first two Republican debates. But it could feature a genuine clash of ideas, especially if the right questions are asked.

Here are five questions that could be asked and answered with a “yes” or a “no”—along with notes on which candidates might be most likely to answer with a clear “yes.”

1. The Republican debates have focused on ways to penalize and punish immigrants who may have entered the United States without required documents. But Americans genuinely differ with regard to immigration policy. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the best way to address immigration challenges is by providing immigrants with more legal advice and better services to help them through the process. Would you support the creation of an independent agency to advise immigrants, working with them in a humane rather than punishing manner to resolve status and eligibility questions?

Most likely to answer “yes”: Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who has said he would move further and faster than President Obama and others to welcome immigrants, declaring, “We are, and always have been, a nation of immigrants and our immigration laws must reflect our values. The enduring symbol of our nation is the Statue of Liberty, not a barbed wire fence.”

2. The United States Postal Service is as old as the country itself; its central role in the American experiment was mentioned in the US Constitution. It continues to provide universal service nationwide, often more efficiently and inexpensively than private carriers. Yet the postal service has been hamstrung and undermined by cumbersome requirements to prepay health benefits at a far higher level than federal agencies and private firms, and by archaic restrictions on the services it can provide. One proposal, advanced by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and others, has been to establish a postal-banking system that would provide basic financial services at post offices. Would you have postal banking as part of a broader effort to renew and strengthen the postal service?

Most likely to answer “yes”: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime champion of postal workers and the postal service, who says “it makes no sense to eliminate thousands of jobs and slow down the mail service that millions of Americans rely on. We should be working to strengthen the Postal Service, not send it into a death spiral.” Sanders has proposed special legislation to allow the USPS to innovate and develop new services for rural and urban communities.

3. Former CIA employee and government contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which privacy rights have been eroded by surveillance programs, many run by the National Security Agency with the cooperation of telecommunication corporations. Snowden’s revelations spurred policy debates and changes in the approach of public agencies and private corporations because they showed the extent to which the government was acting in our name but without our informed consent to undermine Fourth Amendment protections. Snowden is now in exile, threatened with prosecution if he returns home. But many Americans believe he did the right thing. Should Edward Snowden be allowed to return to the United States as a free man?

Most likely to answer “yes”: Lincoln Chafee, who after Congress moved to place some restrictions on the mass surveillance that Snowden exposed, declared: “Congratulations to Congress for standing tall for civil liberties! Now let’s bring Snowden home. He has done his time.”

4. In an age of rapid digital transformation and automation, we are told that the future is a “sharing economy” or a “gig economy,” where Americans use their cars or their homes to provide services through operations like Uber and Airbnb. But there are real doubts about whether these “jobs” will provide the income, the benefits, or the security that Americans once knew. Should elected officials and regulators be stepping to up assure that, even as the United States encourages innovation, workers are protected in the “new economy”?

Most likely to answer “yes”: Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Clinton has been particularly engaged with discussions about the new economy: meeting with academics, speaking on the major issues. “Many Americans are making extra money renting out a spare room, designing a website…even driving their own car,” she says. “This on demand or so called ‘gig’ economy is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation, but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

5. The United States has engaged in military actions that have had serious—and often unanticipated— consequences. It is not just Republican presidents like George W. Bush but Democrats like Barack Obama who have acted without what many constitutional scholars see as sufficient congressional debate and approval. For instance, should President Obama have gone to the Congress and sought approval for the bombing of Libya?

Most likely to answer “yes”: Former Virginia senator Jim Webb, who served an assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and secretary of the Navy before his election to the Senate, where he served on the Foreign Relations Committee. “There is no such thing as the right of any president to unilaterally decide to use force in combat operations based on such vague concepts as ‘humanitarian intervention,’” says Webb. “If a treaty does not obligate us, if American forces are not under attack or under threat of imminent attack, if no Americans are at risk, the President should come to the congress before he or she sends troops into Harm’s Way.”

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