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A Plea to NBC

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

The first 2020 presidential debates will happen this week. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, NBC will host two separate debates, featuring 20 candidates across the two nights. The moderators will be Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Diaz-Balart.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that the journalists who moderated the presidential debates in 2016 didn’t do an especially good job. I don’t mean every moderator at every debate, but as a group, the moderators weren’t impressive. They repeatedly failed to ask about the country’s single biggest long-term problem — climate change — and they asked too many superficial horse-race questions.

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NBC’s moderator lineup for this week is filled with smart, knowledgeable journalists, and I’m hoping they will do better than the 2016 crowd did. Here’s my plea to them, in the form of three wishes:

  • Ask about climate change. This shouldn’t be hard. The earth is warming. Seas are rising. Floods, extreme rain, droughts, wildfires and severe hurricanes are all increasing. Avoiding horrific damage will require changes in human behavior that have “no documented historic precedent,” the United Nations says.

    So what are you going to do about that, presidential candidates? How will you deal with a Republican Party that denies the existence of the problem? How will you sell the American people on a policy that may have short-term economic costs? Do you favor a price on carbon, as Democrats long have? Or do you buy the increasingly popular view that other approaches are more politically feasible, at least in the immediate future?

  • Don’t ask about the polls, for goodness sake. I recently attended a candidates’ event in Charleston, S.C., where I watched journalists ask questions about polling to — in quick succession — Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. None of the questions were interesting, and none of the answers were either.

    Asking the candidates to narrate their own campaign as if it’s some kind of sporting event is boring and largely useless. Don’t waste time doing so. Instead, ask them tough questions about their campaign message, their policies or their background. And remember: At the equivalent point in 2007, Barack Obama’s campaign was flailing. It’s still very early.

  • Don’t do performative toughness. We journalists love to ask questions that make us look tough, especially when we’re on live television. Often, though, those questions aren’t actually tough — or smart.

    An example: Journalists have long given Democratic politicians a hard time about how they will pay for the programs they’re proposing. The subtext is: You’re being unrealistic, aren’t you? In this campaign, though, several leading Democrats have already proposed big tax increases. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax is one example. Bernie Sanders’s proposed increase in the estate tax is another. So is Pete Buttigieg’s discussion of a top marginal tax rate of 49.9 percent, up from 37 percent today.

    Tax policy is a great debate subject, but I hope the moderators avoid the old, clichéd “But how will you pay for all this?” version of the question. Instead, they could ask Joe Biden, Cory Booker and others whether they favor a new wealth tax or an increased estate tax — or neither. They could ask what the top marginal rate should be: 39.6 percent (as signed by President Obama), 49.99 percent (à la Buttigieg), 70 percent (as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposes) or 91 percent (as in the 1950s)?

Often, the toughest questions are specific ones that force candidates out of their canned answers — rather than obvious, general questions that happen to be asked in a confrontational tone.

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