While there is reason to gripe that Iowa and New Hampshire - primarily white and non-urban states - get the first two Democratic presidential contests, the unmistakable benefit of this arrangement is the intimacy those states provide and the access they afford to ordinary voters to ask questions of candidates.
As you watch the town halls (God bless C-Span), you may be struck by how succinct and meaty voters' questions are. They don't ask horse-race questions (what's your path to the nomination?), nor do they raise whatever mini-non-scandal of the day absorbs cable TV news. (In this regard, TV interviewers could learn something about asking short, specific and policy-based questions.)
Rather, these voters tend to ask serious questions about health care, wages and climate change. The candidates can be remarkably specific (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, most especially) or they can fall back on generalities. Candidates cannot easily disguise how much they know and how deeply they've thought about issue.
Voters should be able to uncover the candidates' proposals (if not precisely how they will fund these initiatives), but in a field of a dozen or more candidates, a lot of the answers will sound similar (e.g., pay for a step-by-step expansion of Obamacare by taking the rich).
In addition, the questions too often presume the next president will have a compliant Congress and no Senate filibuster. In the real world, however, the Senate will not provide the next Democratic president with a filibuster-proof majority.
Rather than ask, in essence, what the candidates' wish list contains, it would be more helpful to ask something along the lines of this: Even if you get a Democratic Senate, you're not going to have 60 Democrats and Republicans will never support Medicare-for-all, no matter how you define it. So what do you do about health care when you get into office? (The same kind of question can be asked of any topic.)
The candidate might support eliminating the filibuster. (I find that a perfectly dreadful idea, but candidates can explain why they think that's a good idea, knowing for two years President Donald Trump had a narrow Republican Senate majority.)
Alternatively, the candidate could describe what practical intermediary steps they favor on the way to their ideal policy outcome and how they are going to persuade a bunch of Senate Republicans to support the plan. Let's hear the candidates' pragmatic approach to legislation and how they intend to build consensus. (Maybe they've had smaller bipartisan successes that would shed light on their political skills.) Asking these kinds of questions will be far more revealing than learning about the dream solutions that will never pass. (Any candidate who says the most progressive wish list is possible isn't leveling with you.)
In Iowa Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California got tremendous applause for promising not to conduct foreign policy by tweet and vowing to read the daily intelligence briefing.) Voters can certainly demand that candidates spell out their positions on a laundry list of issues ranging from Syria to NATO to trade - and they certainly should (both as a means of testing their preparation and in pinning them down on concrete foreign challenges.
However, a more fruitful line of questioning would explore the candidates' worldviews and how they see America's role in the world. In the Democratic primaries, it's important to find out who are the internationalists and who are inclined to follow Trump's preference for retrenchment and retreat. Candidates should be pressed to tell us:
• Is it in the United States' interest to be more involved in the world or to pull back?
• Has the United States generally been a force for good or not in the world?
• What is the relationship between American values and national security?
• Should we support democratic governments over authoritarian ones, and if so, how do we go about doing it?
• What's the relationship between hard power and other instruments of power (e.g., diplomacy, economic aid)?
• What is the appropriate balance between multilateral institutions and bilateral alliances? Between both of those and the United States' unilateral action?
• What is the extent of the president's Article II powers in foreign policy? To what extent is it constitutionally required and/or wise to involve Congress in foreign policy decision-making?
• How do we avoid tariff wars and open new markets for American businesses and farmers?
• How should the president make decisions when senior advisers are divided?
• When is it important to be guided by Pentagon advisers (civilian and uniformed) and when is it important to reach beyond that group (as President George W. Bush did with regard to the Iraq surge)?
In sum, early-state voters can go beyond a list of candidates' domestic policies, pushing them to explain how they would make progress toward their goals in the real world. Likewise, it's important to know what a candidate's views are on, say, the South China Sea, but it is more vital to find out how the candidate thinks about the world and will make decisions.
The country will be watching Iowa and New Hampshire voters, hoping they can winnow out the unprepared, the unserious and the unrealistic contenders. We cannot afford four more years of Trump nor another unfit president; much, then, rides on early-state voters' ability to extract meaningful answers and cast aside the duds.
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