Making Debates Really Matter

By Mark Shields

August 24, 2019 4 min read

Presidential debates — even those featuring 10 or more candidates well over a year before Election Day — can tell us much about those self-confident enough to offer themselves as the nation's next commander in chief.

For example, eight years ago, the candidates of the out party, running to challenge then-White House incumbent Democrat Barack Obama, debated in beautiful Ames, Iowa, where Byron York of the Washington Examiner asked an important question. At the time, there had been much arguing among politicians about proposed formulas for federal spending cuts to tax increases to reduce the expanding federal budget deficit. York asked former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the eventual upset photo-finish winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses the following January: "Is there any ratio of (spending) cuts to (increase in) taxes that you would accept — 3-to-1, 4-to-1 or even 10-to-1?" Santorum answered, "No."

Bret Baier of Fox News immediately followed up: "I'm going to ask a question to everyone here on the stage. Say you had a deal, a real spending cuts deal, 10-to-1 ... Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes you'd walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?" Every one of the eight Republican presidential candidates on the Ames stage — eventual nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, then-Rep. Ron Paul, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and Santorum — raised a hand.

Such moments may be rare, but they are revealing. President Ronald Reagan, easily the most popular Republican president of the last half-century, had agreed to $3 in spending cuts for any $1 in tax increases before he signed the largest tax increase in U.S. history. We were all told bluntly in that August 2011 debate that all the repeated commitments in the GOP party platforms to solemnly fight for a balanced budget constitutional amendment were cynical, hypocritical or laughably unserious — or all of the above.

Here are my immodest suggestions to make the upcoming presidential candidates of some real value to the people in making our presidential decisions. First, no more audiences. Put the candidates in a television studio — just like Kennedy and Nixon were — where there are no cheers or boos from the crowd to which candidates play. Then, pose the following:

Which president of the opposite party — from during your lifetime — do you admire most and why?

Say you win the White House and the nation remains politically polarized. The leaders of the two parties in Congress come to you as the new chief executive and pledge, "We have the votes to pass — or repeal — any two federal laws you believe would make our country better, fairer or more united." Tell us what they are. Just two.

If you could be sure that one constitutional amendment you favor could be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Congress and ratified by three-quarters of the states, which amendment would you back?

When was the last time you felt shame for something you did or failed to do?

What past position or vote in your own public career would you change if you were able?

Tell us in one paragraph — without mentioning the incumbent or any of your opponents — why you would make the best president beginning in 2021.

Debates can be informative if we just give them the chance.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Photo credit: freestocks-photos at Pixabay

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