Presidential debates: Five tough questions that should be asked

Tonight’s Republican and Sunday’s Democratic debates are opportunities to ditch the zingers and have long-overdue conversations on serious economic policy issues, from opportunities for the middle class to tax reform and paying for college. 

John Locher/AP/File
Donald Trump, left, watches as Ted Cruz speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate in December. Tonight’s Republican and Sunday’s Democratic debates are opportunities for long-overdue conversations first and foremost on policy.

The Iowa caucuses are just three weeks out. New Hampshire speaks up in four. 

Tonight’s Republican and Sunday’s Democratic debates are opportunities for long-overdue conversations first and foremost on policy. 

The issues are serious. The total national debt continues rising and now clocks in at $19 trillion. Middle-class wages have been stagnant while health insurance premiums have soared. And millions of good-paying jobs remain unfilled because too many Americans lack needed skills.

Yet not in our lifetimes have politics and personality driven a presidential race to a greater extent than in 2016.

Here are five tough questions for the candidates to foster substantive debate on challenges likely to confront them as president.

#1 – Higher Education: Today, the average American college student graduates with $29,000 in debt. The jobless rate for 20-24 year-olds stands at 9.4 percent compared to 4 percent for older workers. How would you lower the cost and increase the value of postsecondary education and training for millennials?

By 2020, an estimated 65 percent of jobs will require a college degree or some training after high school. Making matters worse is that tuition has grown faster than overall inflation for decades, raising a barrier to lower- and middle-income families. Recent graduates in high-demand fields readily find work, but others struggle to find jobs that pay enough to repay their loans and make ends meet. Government, employers, and the education sector must develop innovative ways to educate more Americans in skills leading to good jobs and do so at lower cost. 

#2 – Economic Opportunity: Over 45 million Americans live in poverty. Two million long-term unemployed remain. And middle-class wage growth has slowed to a snail’s pace. What’s your plan to boost prosperity for individuals who feel like the Great Recession hasn’t ended?

Free markets reward risk-taking and innovation, but too little opportunity and too much inequality can cause cynicism about the fairness of our society. The economy must grow faster and that rising tide will lift all boats. Ultimately, equality of opportunity is the only remedy to inequality. This requires a three-part education agenda that expands early childhood education, raises accountability in K-12, and makes postsecondary learning affordable and effective. At the same time, lowering health care costs and streamlining our tax and regulatory system are essential. 

#3 – Health Care: This year, many Americans can expect higher monthly premiums and more out-of-pocket costs for their health insurance. As President, what would be your prescription for controlling health care costs, and what can the average patient expect to pay out of pocket? 

America’s health care system is larger than the whole economy of France and remains one of the most complex parts of our economy. The objective of health care reform must be to lower its price tag while boosting both access and quality. Touted by some candidates, price controls would end up reducing the quantity and quality of services. Real reform would improve transparency in insurance markets and encourage consumers to “shop around” to get the best value, without requiring all consumers to “play doctor” and make complex decisions about individual providers and treatments.

#4 – Tax Reform: The US tax code is riddled with exceptions, carve-outs and preferences that often benefit the few and the well-connected at the expense of the many. What’s your plan to reform the tax code?

Some candidates claim that their tax plan will cut taxes for all households, while generating more revenue for Uncle Sam. But any tax changes will inevitably have winners and losers. And any proposal that seems to have a lot of “winners” only does so by significantly reducing government revenue – as much as trillions of dollars over a decade – with sky-high debt as a result.  We need elimination of a long list of loopholes to justify lower tax rates.

#5 – Debt and Deficits: Trillion dollar-plus federal deficits during the Great Recession have declined to about half-trillion dollar deficits. Still, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the debt will grow by nearly $8 trillion over the next decade. How would you address this mountain of debt that threatens taxpayers’ wallets and pocketbooks?

Much of the recent improvement in the federal budget is a one-time recovery. Millions of jobs that were lost during the financial crisis have returned and generated billions in tax revenue. But it doesn’t come close to addressing the challenge at hand: federal benefit programs for retirees are growing much faster than tax revenues. Painless solutions like tax cuts that “pay for themselves” or trimming “waste, fraud and abuse” just aren’t enough. Placing the federal debt on a healthy trajectory requires a mix of reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Beyond entitlement changes, any real, long-term solution will necessitate both spending cuts and revenue increases.

To answer these questions, candidates must give the voters more substance and less cheap talk. Show us that you’re ready to govern, and not just to launch zingers on the stump.

Diane Lim is Vice President of Economic Research and Monica Herk is Vice President of Education Research at the Committee for Economic Development.

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