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A Well-Moderated Forum Can Mean More than a Debate

Posted: January 22, 2020 | By: Madeleine Leigh Tagged: Blog

On Jan. 19, I attended, “We The People 2020: Protecting our Democracy a Decade After Citizens United,” a forum moderated by HuffPost, and organized by Brady, Common Cause, End Citizens United, MoveOn, the NAACP, People For the American Way, Progress Iowa and Public Citizen.

After watching six democratic candidates—Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Governor Deval Patrick, Andrew Yang, and Senator John Delaney—speak about everything ranging from voting rights to blue slips to gun violence, I firmly believe the way this forum was set up is the best way to learn more about candidates’ policies.

Each candidate spoke for roughly twenty minutes and answered both moderator questions and questions from the audience, though there was some confusion over how that worked with Mayor Buttigieg and Gov. Patrick, given that they joined over video conference. What this format gave us was answers unbridled by 60 second time limits as in the debates, and with a narrower focus than as when they attend town halls where everything they want to do is under scrutiny.

As a result, the candidates had the unique opportunity to clearly outline their policies and opinions and to fully clarify then when pressed by the moderators. And credit where credit is due to the moderators, Amanda Terkel and Kevin Robillard, for asking real questions and holding candidates accountable for the answers, and not asking leading questions aimed at stirring up drama.

I learned more about each of these candidates’ policies on campaign finance reform, anti-corruption and ethics, appointing judges, and voting rights in three hours than I have over the last six months’ worth of debates.

One topic the moderators brought up for nearly every candidate was blue slips. A blue slip is the senator from that state’s opinion on the appointment when a president makes a federal judicial nomination. Traditionally, federal judges have not been appointed without the senators’ approval, though President Donald Trump has broken that norm during his presidency.

Terkel and Robilland asked the candidates if they would go back to the norm or continue on as President Trump has.

Sen. Warren advocated for the de-politicization of the judiciary, arguing that, along with appointing a variety of people from different backgrounds, is one of the most important ways to improve the judiciary. But when pressed, Warren stated she would not commit to going back to the blue slip tradition because she felt holding herself to a standard that, in her mind, her republican counterparts in the senate were not, would be a mistake.

Mayor Buttigieg refused to say one way or the other, citing a need to evaluate whether blue slips are actually beneficial. In his mind, there are many norms that will not conform to the reality of 2021 and all the work that he believes needs to be done.

All in all, there was an interesting trend among the candidates to push for the use of the expanded executive powers created by President Trump, which, given they would be the ones to use those powers, is not surprising. However, it does show that, in many of the candidates’ minds, there is no going back to old norms, only forward.