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October 15, 2012

Moderators should force a real debate on vital issues

By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Weekly Commentary | Chicago Sun-Times

Debate moderators always get a bad rap. As Jim Lehrer and Martha Raddatz demonstrated, candidates’ zealous supporters tend to blame the moderator if their champion doesn’t fare well. That’s not fair, but I do suggest moderators should be held accountable for whether they raise questions vital to the public’s understanding.

We need moderators to press candidates to discuss fundamental issues that too often are cut out of the debate. And we need them to press for answers beyond the talking points and help Americans see where candidates really stand. For example, the plight and promise of our cities have been virtually absent from the debate. Republicans venture into cities only for high-dollar, closed-door fund-raisers. Exasperated Republican Peggy Noonan urged Romney to wake up his campaign by holding an urban rally, for she mourned, “All of our campaigning now is in bland suburbs and tired hustings.”

As Kevin Baker pointed out in the New York Times, the Republican convention seldom uttered a word about a city, and its 31,000-word platform offers no urban agenda.

Cities are marked by poor neighborhoods, by slum housing, by impoverished schools, by guns and drugs. We desperately need a policy to address urban poverty — just as we need one to address the poverty of Appalachia and rural areas. Urban poverty has now spread to suburbs, as well. Mass transit, education, affordable housing, a living wage, child nutrition, Medicaid, public health — these fundamental needs of the vulnerable are now slated for deep cuts in the Romney/Ryan budgets. Yet there is virtually no discussion of what our policy should be for the cities.

Cities are also vibrant centers of creativity, culture, higher education and energy. They are generators of jobs and innovation where the young and the entrepreneurial flock. Yet, there is no discussion of the public policies needed to foster urban productivity and growth. Mass transit, energy efficiency, greening of urban areas, affordable college, the right to privacy, the right to organize and many other pressing issues must be addressed if our cities are to remain vital centers for invention and growth.

Or consider inequality. Inequality has reached greater extremes than in age of the robber barons. Coming out of the recession, the top 1 percent captured fully 93 percent of the country’s income growth. Workers are no longer sharing in the increased productivity and profits they help to produce.

Romney favors lowering tax rates on the wealthy (while closing unspecified loopholes); Obama favors ending the top-end Bush tax cuts and enforcing a Buffett rule so that billionaires don’t pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. But absent has been any discussion of the implications of this kind of extreme inequality for our democracy — even as big money floods our campaigns. Absent has been any serious discussion about what agenda would be needed to rebuild a broad middle class, to recreate what we enjoyed after World War II when we all grew together and incomes on the bottom grew faster, rather than now, when the few are rising, and the rest are sinking.

Let’s have a debate in which at least some of the vital subjects that are being ignored — cities, poverty, inequality, climate change — are discussed, and candidates aren’t allowed to get by with recycled talking points.

This requires a moderator who is not intimidated by public criticism but empowered to serve the public by forcing the debate.