Given that every Presidential candidate is working long hours at a grueling pace, I was prepared for the occasional sleep-deprived gaff during Sunday morning's Democratic debate on ABC. But it turns out that my concern was misplaced. Moderator George Stephanopoulos—not the candidates—is the one who needed a wake-up call.
In the course of the 90-minute debate, he did not ask a single question about global poverty, foreign aid, infectious diseases, or Darfur. Maybe Stephanopoulos thought those issues don't matter much to the majority of Iowans (the debate was held at Drake University). And maybe he's right. But that cannot explain how the most fundamental topic of all—energy and global warming—was also disregarded. Remarkably, all eight candidates were asked if they thought prayer could prevent bridge collapses, but none were asked whether corn-based ethanol makes environmental sense.
Last month's democratic debate on CNN—which exclusively featured questions submitted by the public via YouTube—also managed to (somehow) muff this issue. Following an excellent and critically important question on energy consumption, moderator Anderson Cooper turned to Mike Gravel and Chris Dodd for responses. Together, they're polling about 2% of the Democratic vote. The absurdity of the moment wasn't lost on Hillary Clinton, who finally interrupted with, "Anderson, we haven't really seriously addressed this incredibly important issue of global warming."
What's worse, the candidates actually want to talk about energy policy and climate change—if only they were given a decent opportunity. Within the first few minutes of Sunday's debate, Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson had all mentioned the issue in passing while replying to unrelated queries. Later, in response to a throw-away question asking whether he has ever failed to tell the whole truth, Obama gave probably the most candid (and surprising) statement on energy I have yet to hear:
All of us on this stage have talked about global warming and how it is a moral imperative for us to do something about this, to ensure that we're passing on a livable planet to our children and our grandchildren. There will be some costs involved...all of those steps are going to require a little bit of hardship and a little bit of pinching, and that's something that we don't have enough of a discussion about...[T]hose are the kinds of choices, I think, that the next president is going to have to advance and have an honest conversation with the American people about.
An issue that is a confessed "moral imperative" where the stakes are a "livable planet" might—might—be worth a few moments of dedicated thought and discussion among the frontrunners. And Obama happens to be right on two other counts: 1) Re-tooling an economic system built upon two centuries of fossil-fueled growth will incur some costs and hardships, even if only in the short-term. 2) The next President will need to have an honest conversation with the American people about the scale of the necessary changes and challenges.
That means endorsing and advocating substantive emission targets (as John Edwards, Richardson, and Dodd have done), acknowledging that gasoline prices will need to go higher, and laying out a plan for convincing and aiding China and India to leave their massive coal deposits in the ground.
Grilling the candidates on those topics would be a valuable exercise. When Stephanopoulos or any other talking head gets the chance to question the field again—Democrat or Republican—I hope he or she keeps that in mind.