The Democratic presidential contenders had their first debate last week. It was held in Charleston, S.C. -- but you would not have known from the questions. The moderators -- even the local NBC moderator from South Carolina -- virtually ignored their surroundings.South Carolina is an early primary state, along with Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. South Carolina and Nevada were added by Democrats to ensure that the early primaries reflected the diverse electorate that Democratic candidates seek to inspire. South Carolina is almost 30 percent African-American, and minorities make up a large portion of the Democratic vote in the state.
Imagine if Brian Williams, who moderated the debate, had noticed where it was taking place. Rather than wasting time on "gotcha" questions, he might have focused on poverty and what could be done about it. South Carolina has the third-highest unemployment rate in the country. It's near the bottom in per-capita income. Nearly one in five children are raised in poverty -- 40 percent to single mothers.
Williams might sensibly have asked the candidates what they would do to address poverty in South Carolina and across the country. Poverty is the true "elephant in the room," but Williams asked Joe Biden about his tendency to talk too much instead.
Crime and incarceration -- and our racially scarred criminal justice system -- might logically have been on the agenda. South Carolina ranks first for its violent crime rate and fifth for property crimes. It's seventh in the percentage of its population that is incarcerated.
This isn't just a South Carolina challenge. This country has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. We lock folks up at five to eight times the rate of other industrial countries. Only the staggering costs of prisons are beginning to force states to look at sensible alternatives to incarceration. But the prison industrial complex wasn't on the NBC agenda.
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South Carolina would be a good place to ask about trade and U.S. manufacturing. The state has watched the flight of its textile jobs. It has struggled with the loss of manufacturing and the decline of wages. The United States is now running massive and unsustainable trade deficits, leaving our economy vulnerable to the whims of Chinese and Japanese central bankers. Even former celebrants of free trade are having second thoughts, as they begin to realize that literally tens of millions of jobs are at risk of outsourcing.
South Carolina would have been a good backdrop for such questions. But Williams devoted the brief "domestic policy" portion of the debate largely to abortion and gun control.
And of course, South Carolina would have been a good place to talk about civil rights and the state of race in this country. Dean Stanton, the local commentator, did ask a question on the controversy over the Confederate flag that still flies at the statehouse. But beyond that, we could have been in New Hampshire.
No debate has the time to review every concern. But Democrats chose South Carolina as an early primary state to elevate the concerns of African-American voters. The networks responded by dispatching whites-only anchors to cover the debate -- and by ignoring the questions logically framed by South Carolina's realities. Hopefully, when the debate heads to Iowa, the next moderator won't forget to ask about farmers and rural communities.
© 2007 The Chicago Sun-Times