Asking the Questions that Needed to be Asked: The NAACP Forum
For too long, 2020 presidential candidates have gotten off easy during moderated forums and debates. Many events have devolved into straw-man arguments about healthcare and impeachment, both topics that many candidates on the stage relish, not avoid. “I wrote the damn bill,” Senator Sanders memorably said in a recent debate focused on Medicare for All, creating a motto out of what should have been a contentious conversation about the merits of his plan.
The answer to the lack of hard questions? The NAACP Presidential Economic Freedom Town Hall on November 2, 2019. Hosted here at Drake University in Sheslow Auditorium, this first-of-its-kind forum was sponsored by the Des Moines chapter of NAACP, the Des Moines Register, and KCCI.
Even with eleven candidates, this forum was not a national-media production like Senator Kamala Harris’s town hall in the same venue back in January, or Beto O’Rourke’s town hall in May. The staging was a simple backdrop with patriotic symbols, and the candidates had a chair that notoriously bounced up and down, making Senators and entrepreneurs alike confused and dizzy. Sheslow Auditorium was barely half-full, and there were some delays and issues backstage. You could see the next candidate walk behind the stage from where I was sitting.
This may sound like a recipe for a disaster. But something stood out from the noise of seemingly dozens of forums and events during caucus season: excellent moderating. Hosted by Kameron Middlebrooks, Tisia Muzinga, and Rekha Basu, the forum addressed issues of economic justice within the local African American communities. Through pointed questions and direct follow-ups, the moderators successfully guided the candidates to actual answers instead of clever spins.
For the first time, I truly saw the candidates squirm. Senator Kamala Harris was asked to defend her advocacy for the death penalty. Senator Amy Klobuchar had to address her role in sending cases of police brutality to the grand jury. Senator Bernie Sanders explained why his policies were realistic enough to appeal to a broader audience. Mayor Pete Buttigieg reflected on the racial divide within his community of South Bend, Indiana. And there were seven more candidates at this event.
Giant media productions are good fun. I should know – I attended the Liberty and Justice Celebration the night before with 13,000 Iowa Democrats in attendance. I personally cannot wait to see Des Moines transformed into Caucusland in the coming months. Unfortunately, the bigger the event, the tougher it is to force candidates to nail down their positions. The candidates we saw coming through the fog machines at the Iowa Events Center were at their prime with rehearsed speeches designed to entertain and appeal to thousands; the next day, they had to defend their own records at Drake.
Local conversations, similar to the NAACP Forum, are what will help Iowans narrow down their choices for president. Everyone else gets the nationally-televised debates, but we have the responsibility to be asking the hard questions and demanding answers. Middlebrooks, Muzinga, and Basu led the way in excellent moderating. It’s time for other events and moderators to do the same.