5 town halls on CNN, yet no clue whether any of the candidates is capable of getting things done: Today’s talker

By Nancy Jacobson

For USA Today
April 23, 2019


Presidents can’t govern by fiat

CNN’s five consecutive town halls Monday night illustrated a very strange chasm that has opened between how America is governed and how candidates campaign for national office. When Americans look at Washington, they wonder why our leaders can’t put their own interests aside and do what’s right for the country. Why are they bickering all the time? But then, during campaign season, candidates are asked about issues as if, once elected, they were going to be able to impose their will by fiat — without having to work collaboratively with members of Congress from the other party.

Look, it’s nice enough to know what these various candidates might do if they became prime minister of the United States and could shape policy without any checks and balances. But that’s not how our Constitution works. Nearly every idea each of the five candidates discussed on CNN’s stage will have to make it through a legislative process if any of them were to become president. And should any of this cohort beat President Donald Trump next year, Republicans in the Senate (and possibly even the House) are going to have a real influence on what kinds of legislation can make it to the next president’s desk.

Nevertheless, CNN should be commended for mashing the town halls together. People are busy. Easier to get five done in one night with a bag of popcorn (or two) than to devote an hour each evening for weeks on end to watching the various candidates answer questions.

But even if voters now know more about what Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wants to do about college debt or why South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn’t have more policy proposals on his website, here’s what a truly informative town hall would reveal: How well do you work with people across the aisle? How good are you at forging a productive compromise when the bases of the two parties are at odds on the fundamentals of the problem?

Lots of the kinds of issues that get the most attention at town hall events like the litany broadcast Monday night are more fantasy than prospect. Consider health care, for example — a frequent campaign topic. There’s simply no way that a Washington in which any Republicans have any power is going to allow pulling millions of people off their private insurance in favor of Medicare. By the same token, Democrats are never going to allow the Affordable Care Act’s protections for individuals with preexisting medical conditions to expire. So why are these issues so central to the campaign?

Here’s what would be more helpful: Town halls that give Americans an opportunity to see who’s capable of bipartisanship and who’s more inclined to grandstand. What most voters should care most about is whether their next president will be capable of getting things done. That being the case, the news media’s mission should be to help voters understand which candidates are best equipped to bring bipartisanship back to Washington.