My favorite part of the debate Thursday came at the end (and that’s not the only reason it was my favorite part) when the candidates stopped describing policy ideas that will never see the light of day and arguing over technocratic details most voters don’t fully understand. The question for every candidate was: “What’s the most significant professional setback you’ve had to face? How did you recover from it? And what did you learn from it?”
That was the most revealing question of the evening and got much closer to the sort of question that will help voters decide whom they will select. Voters honestly don’t pick presidential candidates on the details of policy. They do, however, pick someone they trust, who understands their problems and who conveys empathy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in her weekly news conference, said the question for voters is “who among them will connect with the American people, because the election is always about the future, and what that future means to America’s working families.” Moreover, after this president it’s doubly important to find out if these people are prepared — intellectually and temperamentally — for the job.
So why not have a discussion about character, values and fitness? It won’t meet the standard for conflict and confrontation the media crave, but we might actually learn something about the candidates. I want to know how effective they have been in working with someone across the aisle or with an entirely different perspective from their own. I want find out if they have changed their view on an issue and why. I’d like to hear how they select advisers, manage conflict, make difficult decisions and address a serious error or failure by someone working for them. What level of detail do they require when making a critical decision?
Candidates promise to fight to the bitter end for their views, but they rarely promise to adjust their views based on new information or work toward getting half a loaf. Do they have a record of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? When have they told their supporters something they did not want to hear, and on what issue do they swim against the tide in their own party? When have they gotten consensus from interests or people with very different perspectives?
Given the shambles President Trump has made of government and democratic norms, they also should tell us the ethical standards they will apply to themselves and their appointees regardless of what is legally required. What do they consider to be inappropriate criticism of the courts, and how will their White House interact with the Justice Department? What pledges they will make about transparency (e.g., the scope of executive privilege, the frequency of news conferences and White House briefings)?
They should be pressed about some of their more extreme procedural promises that will determine whether their policy proposals will advance. How does a president force the Senate to get rid of the filibuster? How can they possibly pass a constitutional amendment and do so quickly enough to obtain the necessary benefits from ratification? If they want to change the size of the Supreme Court or lifetime tenure, how’s that going to happen?
It often seems as if the debates and the campaign are about an imaginary world in which policies sell themselves, the other side throws in the towel on prior positions, underlings never do any wrong, scandals never break and everyone has perfect information. The reality is entirely different. Issues they squabble about intensely may be radically different than those they face in office, and the composition of Congress can wildly change the realm of what is politically possible. The constant, however, will be the president — her character, skills, flaws and temperament. Last time, we paid zero attention to these factors and, as a result, will be paying a heavy price for years to come.