Schieffer Ignored Key Social Issues, Protected Obama

In the final presidential debate, moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News steered clear of several key issues that would have shined a bright light on the character of the respective candidates – and probably would have been embarrassing to Barack Obama – including marriage, military personnel policy and guns. 

Schieffer inquired instead about the economy, education, health care, energy and climate change, most of which have been covered in previous debates.  He did ask a question about negative campaign ads that gave some insight into the candidates' capacity for leadership.

It's not as if the issues that Schieffer ignored are not topical.

–The Connecticut Supreme Court last week struck down the state's law upholding the traditional understanding of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.  Three states – California, Arizona and Florida – have constitutional marriage amendments on the ballot.  –The Supreme Court ruled this year that the Second Amendment guarantees individual citizens the right to own firearms.

–Obama said during a primary debate that he favored requiring women to register for the draft, and has pledged to open the military to homosexuals.

Schieffer also ignored important issues like illegal immigration, religious liberty, English as the nation's official language, and the unfolding national story about Sen. Obama's ties to the leftwing activist group ACORN, which has been caught committing voter fraud in several key states.

Schieffer did ask two questions about abortion as it related to appointing Supreme Court justices, but failed to ask about the candidate's positions on abortion restrictions such as parental notification, or on the proposed Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would wipe out all restrictions on abortion in all 50 states.  In 2007, Barack Obama told a Planned Parenthood audience that “the first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.”   

Why would marriage, the military and gun rights have proven particularly embarrassing to Obama? 

Definition of Marriage.  Obama says he supports marriage as the union of one man and one woman, but his Web site calls for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage that way for federal purposes and allows states to have their own policies. He also opposes state constitutional amendments preserving the traditional definition of marriage.  

If Obama believes “marriage to be between a man and a woman,” as he told the gay pressure group Human Rights Campaign (HRC), why wouldn't he support laws to keep it that way?  And why did he also tell HRC that “I would oppose any effort to stifle a state's ability to decide this question on its own” while opposing DOMA, which does just that? Finally, why would he support giving the legal privileges of marriage to same-sex couples, such as federal recognition for purposes of benefits and taxes, Social Security and adoption?  Inquiring moderators like Schieffer should want to know, so that millions of Americans can know.

Schieffer should have asked Obama: “How do you account for this gap between your rhetoric and policies?”  He also should have asked McCain about his own confusing record: “Why did you oppose a federal marriage amendment even though you voted for DOMA? Do you support the state ballot measures on marriage? Why did you issue no statement when the Connecticut judges struck down the marriage law?” 

The Military.  America is fighting two wars, and the candidates carry strikingly different views about military readiness and personnel.

Earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that Obama believes that women should register with the Selective Service, which would run any reinstated military draft, and that “Obama would consider officially opening combat positions to women.”  McCain has said he does not believe woman should have to register for the draft or serve in combat positions.  Wouldn't these differences be of interest to millions of American parents, not to mention millions of draft-age women and the men and women already serving?  

Schieffer, like the moderators in the two previous presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, also ignored the issue of homosexuals in the military.  Obama's Web site states, “…we need to repeal the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy and allow all servicemembers to serve openly. Obama will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure we accomplish our national defense goals.”  McCain has said he supports the current law passed by Congress in 1993, which, in contrast to 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' explicitly bars homosexuals from military service. But he told a D.C. homosexual paper that “he would 'defer to military commanders' after a 'review' of the issue.” Schieffer failed to make either candidate explain his positions. 

Guns.  One would also expect a question on the issue of Second Amendment rights, especially in a year in which the Supreme Court upheld that right in the District of Columbia vs. Heller case, which struck down Washington's handgun ban.

Gun rights would have been a tough topic for Obama because he apparently flip-flopped on the D.C. gun ban.  When the ruling was announced, Obama told the Fox Business Network he “said consistently that I believe that the Second Amendment is an individual right, and that was the essential decision that the Supreme Court came down on.” 

In November 2007, however, the Chicago Tribune reported that Obama thought the D.C. gun ban was “constitutional.” An aide later denied that Obama had taken that clear a stand. In early 2008, Washington D.C.'s local ABC affiliate anchor Leon Harris asked Obama this question:  “You said in Idaho recently – I'm quoting here – 'I have no intention of taking away folks' guns' but you support the D.C. handgun ban.” Obama responded “Right.”

When Obama was asked in the April 16, 2008 debate by ABC News's Charlie Gibson if he considers the D.C. law to be consistent with an individual's right to bear arms, Obama said, “Well, Charlie, I confess I obviously haven't listened to the briefs and looked at all the evidence.”

With McCain, there has been no ambiguity. He signed an amicus brief in the District of Columbia v. Heller case contending that the D.C. gun ban is incompatible with the Second Amendment.

With the exception of the questions about Roe v. Wade and judicial appointees, Schieffer continued the pattern established in the other debates: to avoid the questions on character and values that would have sharply defined differences between the candidates on key social issues.

Robert Knight is director of the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center. Colleen Raezler is a CMI research assistant and co-author, with Mr. Knight, of the study 'Character' the Most Important Issue in the Presidential Primary Debates.