Column: Debates should plow fresh ground

October 1, 2012


The spectacles we persist in dignifying as presidential “debates” — two-minute regurgitations of rehearsed responses — often subtract from the nation’s understanding. But beginning this Wednesday, these less-than-Lincoln-Douglas episodes might be edifying if the candidates can be inveigled into plowing fresh ground.

Concerning the Judiciary

Although the average age of the Supreme Court justices (66) is less than that of the Rolling Stones (68), three justices will be in their 80s before the next presidential term ends, so the next president probably can solidify today’s conservative majority or create a liberal majority.

For Mitt Romney: Many conservatives advocate “judicial restraint.” They denounce “judicial activism” and define it as not properly deferring to decisions by government’s majoritarian branches. Other conservatives praise “judicial engagement” and define it as actively defending liberty against overbearing majorities. Do you favor “restraint” or “engagement”? Do you reject the Kelo decision, in which the Supreme Court deferred to governments’ desire to seize private property and give it to wealthier private interests who would pay higher taxes?

For Barack Obama: You deplore the court’s Citizens United decision. What is your constitutional basis for rejecting the decision’s principle that Americans do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together in corporate entities (mostly nonprofit advocacy corporations such as the Sierra Club) to speak collectively? You say you would “seriously consider” amending the First Amendment to empower Congress to regulate political speech. Explain why you choose to make the Bill of Rights less protective.

For Romney: The Republican platform endorses using “whatever legislative method is most feasible” to ban flag desecration. Can you distinguish this from the anti-blasphemy laws in some Islamic countries? Should we criminalize expressive acts that offend?

Concerning Foreign Policy

For both: On Oct. 7, we begin the 12th year of the war in Afghanistan, and 51 recent NATO fatalities have been at the hands of our supposed Afghan allies, causing U.S. commanders to indefinitely suspend many joint operations. Why are we staying there 27 more months?  

For Romney: You envision “countervailing duties” to punish China for manipulating the value of its currency. Do the “quantitative easings” by Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve, which vastly expanded the money supply, constitute currency manipulation? Would duties increasing the prices Americans pay for Chinese imports violate your vow to not raise taxes?

For Obama: Your campaign boasts about increasing the number of unfair-trade charges against China. How would Americans’ welfare be enhanced by raising the prices they pay for consumer goods and production materials from China?

For both: You are correct that China subsidizes politically connected businesses. Does not our Export-Import Bank do this?

For Obama: Are GM and Chrysler subsidized? Are they politically connected businesses?

Concerning Domestic Policy

For Obama: Your opponent proposes cutting income tax rates 20 percent and implies paying for this partly by means testing some deductions (e.g., mortgage interest payments and charitable giving). Do you oppose his plan for making the income tax more progressive?

For Romney: You say “redistribution” has “never been a characteristic of America.” You’re kidding, right? Is not redistribution one purpose of progressive taxation? Is not most of what government does — from agriculture subsidies to subsidized student loans to entitlements — the redistribution of wealth from one cohort or region to another?

For Obama: You recently said changing Washington “from the outside” is “how some of our biggest accomplishments like health care got done — mobilizing the American people.” You’re kidding, right? A majority of the American people never supported passage of Obamacare. Did you not secure passage by deals with Big Pharma and other inside Washington players?  

For both: Do you agree that a financial institution that is too big to fail is too big to exist? If not, why not? The biggest banks emerged from the Great Recession bigger. At the end of 2011, the five biggest (JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs) held more than $8.5 trillion in assets, which is 56 percent of the 2011 GDP. Why should they not be broken up?

For Obama: Your deep blue Illinois — like another essentially one-party Democratic state, California — is buckling under the weight of its portion of the estimated $2.5 trillion in unfunded state pension obligations. Will you promise to oppose attempts to force the taxpayers to bail out badly governed states?

For both: Do you assume the Almighty is not paying attention whenever you say “I approve this message”?

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.    


Stuart Sweeney 5 years, 8 months ago

The Roberts court has wittled away at individuals rights in favor of business rights. Is this truly the dirrection we want to go? Big business is always right and the individual is always wrong? The abortion issue can seesaw back and forth forever but if we continue to allow our rights as individuals be diminished we may never recover those!

Satirical 5 years, 8 months ago

So the Supreme Court should deny businesses rights, even when the Constitution says those rights exist? Is their job to pick winners and losers, or is it to call the game based on the rules (U.S. Constitution)?

If you feel they are not following the Constituiton, would you cite specific instances?

Do you believe that an individual has the right to free speech but a collection of individuals (making up a business or a union) doesn't have the right to free speech? See Citizens United case.

jafs 5 years, 8 months ago

A collection of individuals combining in order to collectively exercise their constitutional rights is fine, ie. NRA.

A multinational corporation that sells widgets is by no means that sort of collection of individuals.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 8 months ago

"A multinational corporation that sells widgets is by no means that sort of collection of individuals" I really don't understand your apparent distain for people who are engaging in perfectly legal activities.

Selling widgets to whom? To people who apparently wish to purchase widgets. Made by whom? Employing honest hard working, tax paying individuals. Brought to you by whom? Transported by more hard working, tax paying individuals.

Engaging in commerce is what has built this country. it's exactly what the founding fathers did. Why the distain for them, but you're fine with other groups advocating for their points of view?

jafs 5 years, 8 months ago

I don't want to get into a long discussion about this again.

I have no disdain for them - they're fulfilling an important economic function, in a variety of ways.

The point, as I've said numerous times, is that the group is not organized and designed to serve as a common or collective expression of political views.

As such, to claim that there can be a "point of view" representing the many diverse individuals engaged in commerce with the company in different ways is absurd. The people that work for, buy from, manage, etc. undoubtedly have a wide variety of political views.

By the way, if you're idealizing the founding fathers, you must be forgetting that they owned slaves, and that was a large part of their "engagement in commerce". I'm sure you're not suggesting we follow that example, right?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 8 months ago

Certainly I don't approve of slavery. Heck, I'm not the biggest fan of the second amendment that you referenced when you mentioned the NRA. But the point is that as long as government attempts to influence commerce, and there is no doubt whatsoever that government is doing that, then those engaged in commerce have every right to try to influence that political process.

jafs 5 years, 8 months ago

I'm not a huge 2nd amendment fan either - that's why I use it as an example. It's a perfect example of a group designed to serve as a collective political voice, whether one likes it or not.

People have rights, and they have the right to join together to express those rights collectively, constitutionally speaking.

Corporations, as a legal creation and fiction, have whatever rights we choose to give them, as well as whatever responsibilities.

All of the employees, managers, CEO's, shareholders, etc. already possess the constitutional rights to organize in whatever groups they like, and also to speak and petition the government on their own. There's no need to create such a right for a fictional legal entity.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 8 months ago

The taxes they pay aren't fictional, are they?

jafs 5 years, 8 months ago


What's your point?

Constitutional rights are one thing - who pays taxes and how much are quite another.

If we've decided, as a nation, that corporations should pay taxes, then that's our decision. We created them through our legal system, so the nature and rights/responsibilities of them are up to us and that same legal system.

Constitutional rights apply to actual, real people and groups of them organized to pursue common goals.

I believe it was Justice Stevens who said "Corporations aren't members of we the people, by, about and for whom the constitution was written".

jhawkinsf 5 years, 8 months ago

Was Mr. Justice Stevens in the minority when he spoke those words? The point is that when you said that Constitutional rights extend to people only and only some organizations, those organized to pursue common goals, those are your opinions and not those of the Supreme Court. Just as with the recent ACA decision, one that I disagree with but accept because it's the law of the land, so must you also accept the Citizens United decision until such time as you can mount a successful challenge.

jafs 5 years, 8 months ago

That is true.

My opinion is in line, however, with 4 out of 9 SC Justices - not bad for a nobody :-)

It's a bit of a mistake, in my view, to talk of the opinion of the SC when we're talking about a 5-4 decision, which indicates significant dissent on the court.

The same mistake people make when they talk about small victories being a mandate, or a landslide, in elections.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 8 months ago

I agree. But one problem you have is that the Supreme Court is loathe to overturn previous Supreme Court decisions. It happens, rarely. But not usually. One of the most contentious issues of the day, abortion, is one such example. For all the bluster about how conservative this court is, this "Roberts" court, and the Rehnquist court before, yet Roe isn't being overturned. Not now, and not in the near future. And I suspect the same will be true of Citizens United. But ACA I think might, given that it is so complicated and has yet to be implemented. But like you say, even in close elections, it doesn't matter if one candidate gets 49.9% to another's 50.1%, the fact is one will hold office and the other will be unemployed.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 8 months ago

For Romney: The Republican platform endorses using “whatever legislative method is most feasible” to ban flag desecration. Can you distinguish this from the anti-blasphemy laws in some Islamic countries? Should we criminalize expressive acts that offend?

Mr. Will. Overall good column. Surely you jest with this one, do you not? This is not a real isue.

Carol Bowen 5 years, 8 months ago

This is the best column I have read on the presidential campaign issues. Good job, George.

My concern is that the news media has spent a couple of years stirring up emotions. Now, that voters are emotionally primed, can they think through the real issues above in the few weeks we have left? Are they going to listen at all? Too good a column too late.

Satirical 5 years, 8 months ago

As always, an insightful and educated column by George Will.

fiddleback 5 years, 8 months ago

But not before I flash the Queen of Diamonds...

Richard Heckler 5 years, 8 months ago

Wednesday October 3

Third Party Candidates to Join in Real Time on Democracy Now!’s Live Coverage of First Pres.

As President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney square off in the first presidential debate in Denver on October 3, Democracy Now! will broadcast live from Denver with a special expanded presidential debate from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. ET.

We will air the debate, pausing after questions to include equal time responses from two presidential contenders who were shut out of the official debate: Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party.


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