The Republican debates so far have allowed the presidential candidates to avoid some of the tough issues facing our economy and society. Most of the debate moderators' questions so far have encouraged the GOP candidates to attack each other's personalities, character, and poll numbers, but have not explored their positions on key policy matters. The Democratic debates have been more focused on policy issues, but because the moderators have asked different questions of the Republican and Democratic candidates, viewers don't get to compare where they stand on major topics.
Compounding the problem is that skilled politicians have perfected the art of avoiding answering direct questions. Each candidate has his or her must-say talking points regardless of the question. If a journalist asks, "When is your birthday?" a Republican candidate will answer "I will reduce taxes on the job creators," while a Democratic candidate might respond, "I intend to end racial profiling by police."
Here are eight questions that reporters should ask both the Republican and Democratic candidates during the next round of debates. But to avoid having them slither out of really answering the questions, the journalists should insist on a "yes or no?" answer. Only after the candidates have replied with a "yes" or "no" should the moderator give them extra time to explain their answers. If they refuse to give a "yes" or "no" answer, the moderator can refuse to ask them any further questions.
We probably already know how the Republican and Democratic candidates will answer these questions, but it is always good to get their views on the record and let the public see where they stand. This is particularly important because, according the public opinion polls, Americans overwhelmingly support affirmative answers to these questions.
1. Do you think we should raise the federal minimum wage to $12.50 an hour by 2020? Yes or no?
Background: Congress has not raised the federal minimum wage since 2009, when the current $7.25 per hour went into effect. In response, a growing number of states and cities have adopted minimum wage laws higher than the federal level, but only a handful have reached the $12.50 an hour level. A recent poll by Hart Research Associates found that 75 percent of Americans -- including 53 percent of Republicans -- support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 an hour by 2020. Sixty-three percent of Americans support an even greater increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
2. Do you support lifting the income cap on Social Security to require higher-income workers to pay Social Security taxes on all of their wages? Yes or no?
Background: The Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans agree with this idea. Most people don't realize that workers who earn more than $118,500 a year don't contribute Social Security taxes on their full income. Simply removing that tax loophole for high income earners would close the lion's share of Social Security's modest long-term funding gap. Legislation introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon would apply the same payroll tax already paid by more than nine out of 10 Americans to those with incomes over $250,000 a year. Census Bureau data shows that only about 5 percent (1 in 18) of workers would pay more if the cap were scrapped, and only the top 1.4 percent (one in 71 workers) would be affected if the tax were applied to earnings over $250,000.
3. Do you think that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling -- stating that donations by individuals, corporations, and other groups to political candidates is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment -- should be overturned? Yes or no?
Background: According to a New York Times/ CBS News poll, 84 percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in politics. Slightly more Americans (85 percent) want an overhaul of our campaign finance system. Seventy-eight percent of Americans think that campaign spending by outside groups not affiliated with candidates should be limited by law. A majority of Americans (54 percent) believe that money given to political candidates is not a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In other words, they disagree with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Depending on who the next president appoints to the Supreme Court, and how many appointments he or she gets to make, the Court could overturn Citizens United.
4. Do you think we should raise taxes on people earning more than $1 million a year? Yes or no?
Background: According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 68 percent of Americans favor raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year, including 87 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents, and 53 percent of Republicans. More than three-quarters of Americans (79 percent) think that wealthy people don't pay their fair share of taxes, while 82 percent believe that some corporations don't pay their fair share of taxes, a Pew Research Center survey found.
5. Do you think that all workers should earn paid sick days so working Americans can care for themselves and family members? Yes or no?
Background: A survey by Lake Research Partners earlier this year found that 88 percent of 2016 likely voters -- including 95 percent of Democrats, 96 percent of Independents, and 74 of Republicans -- support paid sick days. The United States is the only advanced economy with no paid parental leave policy and no paid sick days.
6. Do you think we should restore the Glass-Steagall Act limits on commercial banks playing the market with their depositors' funds? Yes or no?
Background: A poll conducted by Lake Research Partners in June found that 91 percent of voters agreed that it is important to regulate financial services and products to make sure they are fair for consumers, while four-fifths (79 percent) said Wall Street companies should be held accountable with tougher rules and enforcement for the practices that caused the financial crisis.. Among likely 2016 voters, 84 percent said that they are concerned about the influence of Wall Street financial companies on elected officials. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently reintroduced her 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act to rein in banks' risky behaviors by reinstating certain Glass-Steagall Act protections that were repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.
7. Do you support the continued existence of and full funding for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? Yes or no?
Background: Since it was founded in 2011 as a result of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, the Consumer Financial Protect Bureau has provided over $10 billion in relief and refunds for over 17 million consumers. Its goal is to protect American consumers from the deceptive, unfair, and abusive practices of financial institutions According to the Lake Research Partners poll, 85 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Independents and 66 percent of Republicans favor the CFPB's mission to protect consumers when they take out mortgages and use credit cards, bank accounts, and other financial products. The CFPD has sanctioned dozens of banks and other financial institutions with fines, and shut down the most abusive institutions. It has partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to win $480 million in student debt relief for former students of the now-bankrupt Corinthian College, and it cooperated with the Federal Communications Commission to gain $100 million in refunds for customers of Verizon and Sprint, who were illegally charged fees on their cell phone bills. Since CFPB's inception, Republicans have tried to eliminate or weaken the agency, including putting limits on how it is funded. Presently, like other federal financial regulators (the Federal Reserve, the OCC, the FDIC, and the NCUA), the CFPB is independently funded. Congressional Republicans have introduced at least 16 bills and appropriations riders that would cut its funding.
8. Do you favor making tuition free for college students? Yes or no?
Background: A poll conducted in August by YouGov found that 55 percent of Americans -- including 78 percent of Democrats, 52 percent on independents, and 26 percent of Republicans -- support free tuition for college students. The poll found that 62 percent of Americans believe that no family and no student should have to borrow to pay tuition at a public college or university. According to a Gallup poll, more than three-quarters (79 percent) of Americans think that education beyond high school is not affordable for everyone in the U.S. who needs it. Another poll found that 77 percent of Americans believe that higher education institutions should reduce tuition and fees, while 59 percent and 55 percent respectively agree that state governments and the federal government should provide more assistance. The average tuition bill for students at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades. More than one-third (35 percent) of 2000-2014 college graduates report graduating with more than $25,000 in undergraduate student loan debt, in inflation-adjusted dollars. The recently graduated college class of 2015 has an average debt burden of $35,051 per student, the highest ever. President Barack Obama proposed giving two years of free community college tuition to students with a C+ or better average who are making progress toward a degree. Hillary Clinton unveiled a plan that would allow students to attend a four-year public college or university without needing to take out loans to cover their tuition, so long as they work at least 10 hours a week. Families would be required to pay out of pocket an "affordable and reasonable" amount of tuition based on their financial situation. Bernie Sanders recently introduced legislation to make all four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free, paid for through a tax on Wall Street transactions.
Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books)
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