Election 2004

Questions Worth Asking

Sixteen questions that moderator Bob Schieffer might ask President Bush in the third debate.
The St. Louis debate was spectacular. The citizens selected to ask questions proved that most talking heads don't have a thing on a group of thoughtful, gutsy Americans. I haven't seen every televised presidential debate. But of all those I've seen since the first election for which I was eligible (1988), Wednesday's was the most substantial, point-counterpoint battle I can recall.

After learning his lesson during the Mistake in Miami, President George W. Bush rid himself of the scowl. Though he was more shouty than pouty on Friday night at Washington University, the president won't make any stylistic errors at Arizona State on Wednesday, and I suspect Sen. John Kerry will maintain his cool as he did in the first two clashes. Because 68 percent of the 46 million Americans who watched the vice presidential debate said the debate had no effect on their voting plans, the debate in Cleveland between incumbent Dick Cheney and challenger John Edwards was a wash.

And thus, barring one of the candidates making an egregious factual error or bogus claim during the Tussle in Tempe, the net effect of this year's debates is two-fold:


  • First, Kerry locked down his partisans with his strong, fact-filled and aggressive performances.
  • Second, Bush's miserable showing in Miami cost him most if not all of his roughly six-point advantage he enjoyed heading into the first debate.


    • If Bush were to trip up in Tempe, however, it would be more likely in response to a question for which he does not have a pre-fabricated answer. In that spirit, as I did for the first debate on foreign affairs, here are 16 suggested questions on domestic and economic policies CBS' Bob Schieffer should ask if he wants to elicit a scowl from the Shouter-in-Chief:

      1. The budget deficit this year is estimated at more than $420 billion, the highest in American history and equal to more than $2,500 for every full-time working taxpayer in the country. In 2000, when the country was running a surplus, you said we had to cut taxes because those surpluses were "the people's money." By that logic, aren't the current deficits "the people's deficits," and if not, whose deficits are they and how will we pay them down?
      2. A third of America's children today live below the poverty line. Do you consider this a problem, and if so, what specifically are you doing to solve it?
      3. You say you're against big government, and yet you supported a farm bill in 2002 that expanded farm subsidies by roughly $130 billion over the next decade. How do you rectify your defense of small government with your advocacy for expanding farm subsidies?
      4. You supported income tax cuts instead of cutting the payroll tax, the direct tax on labor. If lowering taxes on something creates more of that thing, why not advocate lowering the payroll tax on work to generate more jobs instead of cutting taxes on wealth like for inheritances, luxury items, capital gains and dividends?
      5. You say you favor free and open markets, but you oppose allowing Americans to re-import identical, but much cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, something two Republican governors from Canadian-bordering states have openly advocated. Why shouldn't Americans be allowed to by cheaper drugs from Canada or online?
      6. You point to new home ownership as an indication that the economy is improving. What specific policies did you enact that spurred greater home ownership rates?
      7. We have the highest trade deficit in American history. Are you worried about it, why or why not, and what do you plan to do about it?
      8. Earlier this year you announced aspirations to send Americans to the moon and, from there, on to Mars, yet you have hardly mentioned this space initiative since. Do you still want to pursue plans to go to the moon and Mars, and how much should America invest in this plan?
      9. You initially said you opposed both of the affirmative action claims in the two University of Michigan cases from 2003. The Supreme Court rendered a split decision, upholding the use of affirmative action in one case and rejecting it in the other – and your administration then said it agreed with the split ruling. Can you clarify your switch on this issue?
      10. What's your position on illegal immigration? Should Mexicans who came illegally across our southern border years ago, and who have lived and worked and paid taxes here, be given amnesty or sent back to Mexico?
      11. You have proposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Do you know personally any homosexuals, as either friends or colleagues or staff members? If yes, how would you explain to them your support for this amendment? If not, how would you explain to a gay person your support for this amendment?
      12. You oppose abortion. If re-elected, will you advocate for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion? Would you state for the record, yes or no: do you support overturning Roe v. Wade?
      13. Critics say the No Child Left Behind Act only tells us what we already know – which schools are failing and which are not. Should the federal government be spending billions to test, rather than remediate the problems in schools such as declining infrastructures, outdated books and materials, and underpaid teachers?
      14. Critics, including Sen. Kerry, say your administration has underfunded the No Child Left Behind Act by billions of dollars. Is this program a success, and if so, why not fully fund it or even dedicate more money to it?
      15. Your vice president, Dick Cheney, led an energy task force to study energy options. Critics complain that the task force operated in secrecy, and that it was dominated by energy executives. First, should task forces operate in public view? And, second what specific recommendations from the Cheney task force will help solve America's energy crisis?
      16. You said four years ago that Christ was your favorite philosopher. Among mortals, is there a political leader, poet, revolutionary or other person whose writings or actions you greatly admire?

      There are many, many more questions the president would prefer not to answer. It will also be interesting to see how many times, in an attempt to get back to more comfortable terrain Bush manages to work Sept. 11 into a non-foreign policy debate. (I'd peg the over-under is seven mentions.)

      Whatever happens in Tempe, at this point the race essentially now comes down to a battle between the field campaigns – unless the president gets a question tomorrow night that he can't field, gets aggravated, and re-opens the wounds he self-inflicted in Miami.