Mark Shields: Improving our presidential debates

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

By wide consensus, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was one of the two breakout stars in the last Republican presidential debate (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was the other). Cruz is clearly a very smart man who is capable of saying some really stupid things.

The GOP griped about the CNBC debate format and questioning. During a debate recap on Fox News, Sen. Cruz asserted that unless you vote in a Republican primary, you should not moderate a Republican debate. In other words: Sorry, Bob Schieffer, Jim Lehrer and Tom Brokaw. Yes, you all qualify as superb journalists with earned reputations for fairness, but unless you can first pass our partisan loyalty test, you cannot participate.

Sen. Cruz then explained that the moderators at these presidential debates should help conservatives determine who would be the best and most consistent conservative. Forget about any questions on serious matters that might reveal the knowledge, values, wisdom or temperament of the candidate. What citizens need to know, by the Cruz criteria, is who gets perfect scores from the anti-tax Club for Growth and who most adamantly opposes background checks for gun-buyers.

No one is objective, and a press pass doesn’t change that. We are all shaped by our own individual experiences. What the good journalist — of whom there are many — always strives to be is fair. So in the interest of fairness, permit me to suggest some questions that might just make our debates both more interesting and informative.

”When President Gerald Ford debated his challenger, Jimmy Carter, in 1976, columnist Joseph Kraft asked this question: ‘Americans all know these are difficult times. … They don’t expect something for nothing. … As you look at the next four years, what sacrifices are you going to call on the American people to make? What price are you going to ask them to pay?’ How would you answer Joe Kraft’s question?”

”What is the national average price of a gallon of regular gasoline today?” A suggested follow-up: “Gas is about two dollars a gallon cheaper today than it was when Barack Obama was running for president seven years ago. What credit, if any, does President Obama deserve for the falling price of gasoline?”

To Democratic candidates: “What has been President Obama’s biggest single failure in office?” To Republicans: “What, in fairness, has been President Obama’s single major achievement in office?”

”If you could propose, with assurance that it would be ratified, just one amendment to the U.S. Constitution, what would it be?”

”Why do you think the Japanese kamikaze pilots when they flew their suicide planes bothered to wear helmets?”

”Who was your favorite Beatle?”

”Name two major issues where you disagree publicly with the majority of your party.”

”This is the nation that put a man on the moon and rebuilt as thriving democracies two destroyed tyrannies — imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. What do you see as the next frontier for the U.S. to conquer?”

”Without mentioning the name or positions of any opponent or party, tell us in two minutes why you should be president.”

”We are about to have our second presidential election in a row without a nominee who is a veteran. Did you never think about enlisting in the U.S. military to serve your country?”

This last one is my personal favorite. “Mike Mansfield served honorably in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps before he was even old enough to vote — and later went on to serve longer than any American in history as both U.S. Senate majority leader and U.S. ambassador to Japan. He directed that on the simple grave marker at Arlington Cemetery there be inscribed the following: ‘Michael Joseph Mansfield, Private U.S. Marine Corps.’ In one sentence, tell us what you would want your epitaph to say.”

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