Questions at VP Debate Reveal Bankrupt Beltway Thinking

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Grist

Questions at VP Debate Reveal Bankrupt Beltway Thinking

Thursday’s vice presidential debate (transcript) revealed nothing about the candidates’ positions on energy or climate change, but it revealed a great deal about the twisted priorities and collective delusions of center-right Beltway conventional wisdom.

I saw a lot of chatter on Twitter praising moderator Martha Raddatz. And perhaps purely qua moderator, she was better than Jim Lehrer at last week’s presidential debate. She didn’t let the candidates walk all over her. She actually asked a few direct, pointed questions and follow-ups.

But I agree with Josh Barro: Overall, she was not good. A moderator’s role as referee is only half the job. The other half is selecting topics and questions, which frame the debate far more than the refereeing. And Raddatz’s choice of topics and questions was awful.

Put aside, for a moment, the foreign policy stuff. It was a little ridiculous that Raddatz basically asked the candidates about her interests — Libya, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan — and said nothing about the Asia Pacific, Latin America, Russia, or any of the rest of the big wide world that’s not in the Middle East.

But it’s domestic policy where Raddatz, like Lehrer, blew it. She started by asking about unemployment, which is at least a gesture at the enormous suffering in the country right now. That set off minutes and minutes of rambling, all of which was boilerplate (though the stuff on the green stimulus was interesting, mostly because Ryan lied his ass off).

Then it was straight to “entitlements,” which, in case you weren’t aware of the Beltway CW, Raddatz introduced by saying, “Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke.” That is just absolutely, empirically false. Medicare is fine out to 2024 and easily fixable after that (it’s medical costs, not Medicare, that are the real problem). And Social Security quite literally cannot go broke. It too can be kept solvent for many decades with small tweaks. Neither is a problem until a decade from now.

Of all the requirements for a debate moderators, surely the very minimum is that he or she not introduce factual errors into the discussion. No?

And then it was on to taxes and the defense budget. I kept thinking, “This is exactly the stuff we went over the other night in the presidential debate! Where are immigration, education, innovation, housing, LGBT issues? Where is energy? Where is, God forbid, climate change?”

But then it was back to the Middle East again. When domestic policy finally came back around, it was with one of the worst, most pathetic questions I’ve ever heard: “Tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.”

Are you f’ing kidding me?

This is so outrageous. First, who cares what their personal religious beliefs are? They’re not running for parish priest, they’re running for VP of a country with a First Amendment that prohibits making laws on religious grounds. Second, why should women’s reproductive rights be framed as a religious issue? Why not ask what role their religion plays in their views on taxes, social insurance, or war? Why the assumption that women’s autonomy, alone among the issues facing national leaders, should be determined by medieval superstitions?

Grr. But it got worse. I was still wondering where all the many other domestic policy questions were when comes … a question about negative campaigning. This is just classic Beltway stuff, a goo-goo procedural issue about “civility” that no one actually cares about and no candidate has ever said anything interesting about, ever. (Both candidates predictably dodged it to blather about how much they love soldiers.)

This is what happens when you live in D.C. and marinate in Pete Peterson-funded conventional wisdom all dayAnd then there was time for one more question. So many topics had been neglected! Surely there would be a chance to inquire about some pressing social issue of interest to young people or Latinos or … no. “If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?” Seriously. That’s what she used the last bit of the only VP debate for. I was about to cry until she said this, which literally made me laugh out loud:

Vice President, could we get to that — to that issue of what you could bring as a man, a human being? And I really am going to keep you to about 15 seconds here.

Yes, tell us what you bring as a human being in 15 seconds.

It is to weep. This is what happens when you live in D.C. and marinate in Pete Peterson-funded conventional wisdom all day. Your view of domestic policy withers to: Cut taxes. Cut social insurance programs. Increase the defense budget. Speak in pious tones about abortion. And be civil.

It’s such a crusty, outdated, out-of-touch view of the world.

And of course the most ridiculous thing about it is that it takes a fake crisis — the long-term deficit — as its core measure of “seriousness” and completely ignores a real crisis — climate change — that threatens this country far more than deficits (or incivility) ever will. It’s a worldview that is simply not adequate to the times we live in. Somehow we’ve got to break its hold.

David Roberts

David Roberts is the senior staff writer at Grist.org, an online journal of green politics and culture. He blogs there daily, even obsessively, mainly on politics and energy.

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