Through 17 debates this year, roughly 1,500 questions have been asked of the two parties' presidential candidates. But only a small handful of questions have touched on the candidates' views on executive power, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, or other civil liberties concerns. (A description of those questions appears at the end of this column.)
Only one question about wiretapping. Not a single question about FISA.
There has, however, been a question about whether the Constitution should be changed to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger to be president.
Not one question about renditions. The words "habeas corpus" have not once been spoken by a debate moderator. Candidates have not been asked about telecom liability.
But there was this illuminating question, asked of a group of Republicans running for president: "Seriously, would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?"Though Republicans often claim that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of Americans is necessary to prevent "another 9-11," debate moderators have not once asked candidates about recent revelations that suggest the administration began its surveillance efforts long before the September 11, 2001, attacks, not in response to them.
But NBC's Brian Williams did ask the Democratic candidates what they would "go as" for Halloween.
No moderator has asked a single question of a single candidate about whether the president should be able to order the indefinite detention of an American citizen, without charging the prisoner with any crime.
But Tim Russert did ask Congressman Dennis Kucinich -- in what he felt compelled to insist was "a serious question" -- whether he has seen a UFO.
No moderator has asked a single question about whether the candidates agree with the Bush administration's rather skeptical view of congressional oversight.
But Hillary Clinton was asked, "Do you prefer diamonds or pearls?"
That last question came from an audience member at the end of the November 15 Democratic debate. It turns out, as first reported by Marc Ambinder, that the questioner would have preferred to ask a substantive question, but CNN only offered her the opportunity to ask about jewelry.
As Ezra Klein has noted, this is particularly shocking in light of the fact that the cable channel has made a big deal about the Clinton campaign planting a question about global warming in an audience recently. Planting questions about the future of the earth? Bad. Prompting someone to ask the first woman to have a legitimate chance of being elected president about jewelry preferences? That's just good television.
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