What I would ask the candidates

The success or failure of the upcoming presidential debates will depend a lot on the quality of the questions that are asked.

David P. Gushee

It’s the political silly season, when the daily campaign news concerns mainly swing-state strategizing and gotcha gaffes. But soon the debates will begin. The quality of these four encounters between the contenders for president and vice-president depends heavily on the quality of the questions they receive. Here are some things I would ask the candidates.

1. Your party platforms (and national conventions) articulated diametrically opposed positions on the current top two social issues: abortion and gay marriage. Many Americans do not feel represented by the positions your parties have embraced. Can there be common ground here? Do you have anything to say to Americans in the middle on these issues? Or are you boxed in by your party’s base?

2. As a society, America seems addicted to violence: violent sports, violent “resolutions” of our psychological problems and domestic disputes and violent wars. Does our national predilection for violence concern you? What could a president do to turn our country away from violence, especially mass gun killings? Is that a project that matters to you?

3. We spend almost $800 billion a year on defense. That is four times more than our nearest competitor and equal to the military budgets of the next 14 countries combined. Do we need to keep spending that much? Why? Isn’t it time for us to reconsider our expansive military commitments around the world?

4. The recent teachers’ strike in Chicago raises important questions about the role of teacher unions and the overall quality of K-12 education in America. Comparative statistics show that we are clearly falling behind our competitors, and many of our public schools are failing disastrously. Whose responsibility is this? What can we do to make up ground here?

5. Do you believe we are still in a “war on terror”? Or has that threat subsided with the killing of Osama bin Laden? What might it look like to return to a peacetime rather than wartime footing?

6. Many Americans believe the two-party system is broken. You two seem to differ on everything, and partisan rhetoric is often hateful. Should we continue to support the existence of this bipolar political arrangement? Why should your two parties have this quasi-official monopoly on power? Is it working for America?

7. America is fat. We are sickening and killing ourselves, not to mention costing ourselves billions in health-care costs. What is your message to our nation related to taking responsibility for our own choices and our own health?

8. Will Social Security and Medicare be around when you reach retirement age? For President Obama, that’s 14 years. What are both of your plans for taking apart, streamlining and/or strengthening our retirement security programs?

9. President Obama, when you took office you articulated a national goal of getting to zero nuclear weapons. Please update us on your progress toward accomplishing that goal. Gov. Romney, is that a goal you share? What are your commitments related to nuclear nonproliferation?

10. President Obama, your election was viewed here and around the world as a breakthrough for racial justice and inclusion in this country. Four years later, how do you view the status of race and race relations in the United States? Why do you seem to avoid talking about these issues? Governor, how would a Romney presidency further the cause of racial reconciliation? Is your party at risk of becoming the party of white resentment?

11. Your intact marriages and families are clearly very important to both of you, and statistics show that a stable, two-parent family is one of the most important factors related to the well-being of children. Yet almost 40 percent U.S. children are born out of wedlock, and our divorce rate remains high. What do you have to say to America about the importance of sexual responsibility and permanence in marriage?

12. Despite the warnings of the world’s leading climate scientists, national and international policy measures to reduce carbon emissions have not been sufficient to make a dent in the problem thus far. How much time do you believe the world has to mitigate and adapt to climate change? What are your policy commitments in this area?

13. What is it going to take to resolve the impasse over illegal immigration in this country? Why can’t the two parties pass some kind of comprehensive immigration reform as has been proposed since the presidency of George W. Bush? What do you think of the state measures that have been passed while the federal government dithers?

14. The top issue in the election appears to be our economic malaise. Be honest: how much do federal government policies really affect job creation and economic growth? Are we simply being outcompeted in a globalized economy?

15. Religion in this election appears to be as politically polarized as the rest of our public life. Both your parties use religion and religious leaders to mobilize your voters. Is this really the role we want religion to play?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.