Candidates for president need to be confronted with questions that might offend them. That happened last night in Mesa, Ariz., when CNN debate moderator John King asked a question proposed by a reader of the network's website: "Since birth control is the latest hot topic," the reader wanted to know, "which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?" Yet while voters deserved a straight answer from each candidate, the question yielded only derision.
The audience of Arizona Republican voters booed, presumably because the premise of the question sounded too liberal. A "predictable politically motivated question," sniffed one conservative website. Instead of answering King's question, Newt Gingrich berated him for failing to grill President Obama on a potentially unpopular stance he had once taken on an abortion matter.
For all the belly-aching about the birth-control question, though, it's a legitimate subject for debate; the whole political class has been chattering about little else since a dispute erupted between Obama and US Catholic bishops over health coverage of birth control pills. Rick Santorum's frequently expressed reservations about birth control only make the question more current. Tellingly, the debate question was east for him; the former Pennsylvania senator raised the specter of declining sexual morality and the breakdown of the family, but went on to suggest he'd never try to ban birth control:
The left gets all upset. "Oh, look at him talking about these things." You know, here's the difference between me and the left, and they don't get this. Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it.
In reality, the question is more perilous for Mitt Romney, who's struggled to win over fervent religious conservatives without also turning off other voters. The evidence from Massachusetts suggests that Romney's own instincts on matters of sex and public are relatively moderate, but he's not eager to communicate that to GOP primary electorate. Yet one way or another, voters deserve to know how he and other candidates would balance the demands of their party's political base with the concerns of other Americans.
Perhaps debate moderators should press future Democratic candidates about, for instance, their support for abortion procedures that voters find particularly abhorrent. But last night's debate was Republican-only, and King -- who told the booing crowd, "look, we're not going to spend a ton of time on this" -- was too gentlemanly to insist on answers to the birth-control question. But far from being rude, asking questions that make candidates feel uncomfortable -- and stray from their familiar talking points -- is just about the entire purpose of a debate.