Earlier this month in Paris, a historic accord on climate change obtained the assent of 195 countries. It will not in itself solve one of the most pressing problems facing the world, but it's a major first step. To the journalists who moderated last weekend's Democratic debate, however, it might as well not have happened. And what's even worse than the questions that weren't asked are the ones that were.
Elizabeth Kolbert's recent article about climate change and its effects on Miami makes the stakes of the issue crystal clear. "The amount of water on the planet is fixed (and has been for billions of years)," Kolbert observes. "Its distribution, however, is subject to all sorts of rearrangements." If climate change continues unabated, much of the city will be underwater before the end of the century — and it will hardly be the only case. Seems like a pretty big deal, right?
And despite the importance of the issue, it's one of the countless issues on which the two major American parties are polarized. Among Democrats, the only question is how to address climate change. Republicans, conversely, argue either that climate change is a fiction invented by communist scientists or an inevitability it would be futile to stop (and sometimes both at the same time.) Which president will be staffing the EPA and determining environmental regulations for the next four years is, therefore, a rather big deal.
But you'd never know it from Saturday's debates — despite the Paris agreement putting the spotlight on the issue, moderators ignored it entirely. But at the debate's nadir, moderator Martha Raddatz did find time for this question:
Secretary Clinton, first ladies, as you well know, have used their position to work on important causes like literacy and drug abuse. But they also supervise the menus, the flowers, the holiday ornaments, and White House decor. I know you think you know where I'm going here.
You have said that Bill Clinton is a great host and loves giving tours but may opt out of picking flower arrangements if you're elected. Bill Clinton aside, is it time to change the role of a president's spouse?
Your city might be about to drown, but your agents in the press think you're more interested in some sexist twaddle about a potential presidential spouse. Not to be outdone, David Muir followed up with Bernie Sanders, asking if his wife Jane would "have a desk close by in the West Wing." Admittedly, confining the presidential spouse questions to Clinton would have made them seem even more sexist than they were, but really.
And while that was the low point of the debate, ABC's moderators generally delivered a dreadful performance. In addition to many poorly-chosen questions, they were also aggressive at intervening if it looked like a discussion between the candidates might get too interesting or substantive.
And it's not as if climate change was the only issue the moderators deemed unworthy of the attention they granted to pressing subjects like who will be responsible for White House floral arrangements. To take one example, by the time the next president is midway between his or her first term, four members of the Supreme Court will have had their 80th birthday. Within the next decade, the median vote of the Supreme Court will be considerably more conservative or more liberal than it is now, which would have major implications for countless issues. This might seem like an important issue to bring up — but not to the people moderating the debate.
And one reason the Supreme Court is likely to be in the spotlight during the next campaign is that next June it will either have restricted the ability of states like Texas to use questionable regulations to close abortion clinics or it will have effectively overruled Roe v. Wade. Reproductive freedom is another major issue on which the parties have polarized positions, and the autonomy of American women is one of the many crucial issues at stake in the 2016 elections. Hillary Clinton referred to Planned Parenthood — which federal Republicans are trying to get defunded — multiple times, but moderators considered the issue beneath their notice.
Whatever their other flaws, the Republican debates have at least mostly involved substantive questions (if not follow-ups) from moderators. But the Democratic debate too often saw a retreat to the once-common practice of journalists focusing on trivial questions of no discernible interest to anyone but themselves. With what's at stake in the upcoming elections, watchers and voters deserve better.