Making the Most of the Presidential Debates

Article excerpt

There they are: the 2008 presidential candidates, all spiffed-up and ready to go. They are standing under television lights on a streamlined, red-white-and-blue stage. They're about to start another presidential debate, and millions of American voters are watching. Wouldn't you like to be the moderator who asks the tough questions?

If you were, you could ask "gotcha" questions of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who have made dramatic leaps from one side of the abortion issue to the other. Or you could pursue former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who can leap back and forth in the course of one debate. During the first Republican presidential debate in May, Giuliani said it would be "okay" if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, but also okay if it doesn't. He hates abortion, but thinks it should be legal. He supports the Hyde Amendment, which bars most federal funding of abortion, but think states should be able to fund it if they wish. And he admitted that he has supported abortion funding in New York.1 Whoa!

We are in the early stages of the longest presidential campaign in our history. It seems bound to produce the greatest number of presidential debates, with a variety of formats and questioners. Now citizens at large can get into the game with in-person, e-mailed, or even videotaped questions. There are also many possibilities for questions about the candidates (though not necessarily directed to the candidates themselves) on websites, chat rooms, and blogs-not to mention old-fashioned candidate interviews in magazines and newspapers and on radio and television talk shows. All of these offer an opportunity to break through stereotypes, encouraging voters to think about abortion in ways they hadn't considered before. Good questions can change the whole framework of the abortion debate.

One way to do this is through a "thought experiment." This is another term for a hypothetical question, though it often packs more punch than a traditional hypothetical. Another approach takes politicians' best and highest principles and asks how they affect the issue. Still another explores candidates' slogans-for example, by asking how they would make abortion rare. Finally, there's the possibility of asking an obvious, but usually overlooked question. ("Sir, have you actually read the opinion in Roe v. Wade?") Let's explore all of these options.

A Couple of Thought Experiments

"As a Catholic," Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico says, "I am personally opposed to abortion. As difficult as this decision is, I am committed to protecting the right of every woman to make her own decision and will continue to support the rights of the individual against the mandates of the state." Rudy Giuliani declares, "I hate abortion. I wish people didn't have abortions." Yet he also says that "I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice."2

Decades of attacking this claim of a personal/public split have not made a dent. Citing Catholic teaching against abortion hasn't made much difference, either. In fact, it has intensified a major problem: that many Americans believe abortion is solely a religious issue. It also has reinforced the idea that Catholics are the only religious people involved in the politics of abortion. Actually, many people of other faiths are active politically either for or against abortion.3

A great irony is that many politicians do not care very much about the issue. They simply adopt the prevailing view in their political party, especially if they want to compete at the presidential level. Many are not especially religious, either, though they may know how to say "God bless America" and to talk about how their faith has influenced their politics in non-controversial areas. A useful thought experiment for such candidates is: "Well, Governor, let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that you lost your faith or even that you never had any. …