Theoretically, the 21 primary debates—9 Democratic, 12 Republican—of the primary season should have provided us with a solid understanding of where the candidates stand on a diverse array of issues. Instead, we were left debated out by so much spinning in place. We witnessed the existential inanity of candidate name-calling, the art of answering unasked questions and swerving past the ones being asked. We saw zombie questions asked at debate after debate as some critical topics were left out entirely.
And for Christine Emba, editor of Washington Post’s In Theory blog, this sense of the superficiality extends to the entire cycle:
For months now, we’ve seen more coverage of gaffes, conspiracies, and flagrantly unrealistic claims than we could ever have imagined when Ted Cruz kicked off the presidential race last year. What size are Donald Trump’s hands? How many bad Pokémon Go jokes can Hillary Clinton make? Should babies come to political rallies? How much would a Mexican border wall cost? (Hint: We’re not going to build one.)
It’s emblematic of a too-much-information problem, according to Emba. “When this happens,” she tells FishbowlDC, “discussions of substance often lose out to stories that hinge on controversy. While these reliably produce outrage and entertainment, they don’t necessarily leave Americans better informed.”
The In Theory blog’s solution to cut through the contentless void of content is an attempt to capture readers’ minds and imaginations through a series of weekly policy debates. Called The Missing Debate, the series enlists two subject matter experts to each compose a response to a policy-related question in their particular orbit, related to an issue the next president may face. Their responses are augmented by a short explainer on the topic at hand, so that readers have a foundation from which to engage with the responses.
Responses appear during the week in the blog, and in print on Fridays in the Opinion section.
In terms of what Emba is looking for when she enlists debaters, she tells FishbowlDC, “We are looking for people with good ideas. This series is called ‘The Missing Debate’ because even when candidates put forth their positions on key topics, what we hear often only scratches the surface of the issue. That’s why we are not looking for spokespeople, but rather contributors who can dive into the data and details behind the issues that are brought up this election.”
Examples she cites include “political advisors from past presidential administrations, policy experts from think tanks, and prominent Republicans or Democrats.”
The first question is already up, with Center on Budget and Policy Priorities senior from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities senior fellow and former Biden/Obama adviser Jared Bernstein and Manhattan Institute fellow Scott Winship taking on the question, “How should the next president address wealth inequality?”
Subsequent questions will be a mix of those Emba has already planned out and those she is soliciting from her audience, not necessarily mutually exclusive. “In the past two days alone we have seen the questions roll in,” she tells FBDC, “which shows that the interest is there—people do want to learn more. Some of the submitted questions already align with the topics we had in mind, and others we hope to include in the series.”
It’s a happy confluence, it appears, between tackling weighty policy issues for an audience eager for exactly that.