Coverage of the presidential and vice-presidential debates has generally focused on the horse race issues—the damage done by Obama's somnolent performance, how much the damage has been contained by Biden's substantive destruction of the overrated Paul Ryan. But its also important to consider what has been excluded from the discussions so far. To a remarkable extent, questions and subsequent discussion have focused on a (very narrow) discussion of economic issues. And while nobody can doubt the importance of economic issues in an era of ongoing mass unemployment, crucial issues of individual rights and equality over which presidents have major influence were left unmentioned.
During the 180 minutes of debates so far—despite the presidential debate's sole focus on domestic policy—there has been a grand total of one question about civil rights and civil liberties issues. Yesterday, moderator Martha Raddatz finally asked a question about abortion. But, as Salon's Irin Carmon points out, the initial question made this a mixed blessing, as it framed the issue in a fundamentally pro-Republican way:
“We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country…please talk personally about this, if you could. [my emphasis]"
Carmon is correct that seeing abortion as a primarily religious issue is problematic. The question is particularly odd given the fact that support for abortion rights among Roman Catholics and Protestants is virtually identical. Even worse is framing the issue as an issue of private and personal morality rather than one of public policy. While I don't think this was Raddatz's intention, this is the terrain that Republicans would prefer to fight on, because there's more support for opposing abortion as a moral abstraction than for imposing legal sanctions on doctors who perform abortions or women who obtain them. (The fact that the Republican platform has explicitly refused to apply criminal sanctions to women who obtain abortions indicates that conservatives understand this well.) But in the context of a presidential election, this is exactly the wrong priority. What matters is not what the candidates personally think about the morality of abortion, but whether as a policy matter they believe in reproductive freedom, or if they believe that the state should force women to carry pregnancies to term.
At least Joe Biden's good answer limited the damage of the bad question, properly returning the discussion to law and policy rather than private morality, with a particular emphasis on the fact that the Supreme Court is one vote away from taking away women's' reproductive rights. And, in fairness, Raddatz did ask an intelligent and more appropriate follow-up, asking "if the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?" This compelled Ryan to explicitly support the overruling of Roe v. Wade, making hash of his running mate's pathetic attempts to evade the extremism of Republican abortion policy.
So on abortion, at least, voters who watched last night's debate were reasonably informed about what the candidates thought. On many other crucial issues, voters remain in the dark. Needless to say, the civil liberties issues where there's little difference between the parties, such as the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs and extrajudicial killings, have been entirely ignored. But even on issues where there are major differences between the two presidential tickets, voters tuning into the debates heard nothing. What do the candidates think about the wave of vote suppression in the states? Immigration policy? Employment discrimination? Not only have these questions not been asked, it's hard to imagine them being asked.
And perhaps the biggest dog that hasn't barked is LBGT rights. In in a sense, this is a sign of social progress—even five years ago, the idea that a president could come out in favor of same-sex marriage and have it be almost entirely ignored during the subsequent election campaign would have seemed ludicrously implausible. Nonetheless, this progress certainly does not reflect a bipartisan consensus, and voters should be allowed to examine the positions of the candidates. How can Romney and Ryan justify their opposition to the repeal of DADT? Should the Defense of Marriage Act be considered constitutional? Are bans on same-sex marriage consistent with the Constitution's mandate that states provide equal protection of the laws? These are important questions that haven't received a second of consideration during one of the few times in which large numbers of Americans focus on political questions.
There is still one remaining presidential debate that will focus on domestic policy. We can hope the town hall format will at least allow more questions that don't focus on a narrow set of economic issues only interesting to political pundits. So far, the professional questioners haven't done a good job in bringing up anything but insider baseball lines of inquiry for debate.