Five Thorny Questions That CNN Didn't Ask Obama and Clinton

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

The questions tossed at Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have by now become so scripted and predictable that we can practically give the candidate's answers to them in our sleep. The CNN pre-Super Tuesday debate was a near textbook example of that. In fact so textbook that the viewers in the room that watched the debate with me squirmed restlessly after the third or fourth go round on Iraq. They tired of hearing the by now familiar, stock responses from both that it's a wasteful, lethal, terrible Bush war that we need to get out of, and stay out of within sixty days (Obama?) or a year (Hillary?). As for health care, we should make it affordable for all, and on immigration, we back a comprehensive immigration reform law.

OK, but there are five other questions that millions of Americans are thirsting for Obama and Clinton to answer. If they were on the panel they would ask them. The questions are thorny, tormenting, and have deeply divided and inflamed millions of Americans. In past elections they have been defining moments and even make or break questions for presidential candidates.

So here goes. The first is abortion. The GOP presidential contenders have an easier time with this than the Democrats. They're against it, and have flatly said it whenever asked. The slightest waiver on this question would be the political kiss of death for them with the Christian evangelicals. With Obama and Clinton things are touchier. Both have lightly courted the Christian evangelicals, professing they too are a man and woman of profound faith. This doesn't mean that they will scrap their avowedly pro choice, pro abortion advocacy. Yet we still need to know how far their pro choice advocacy will go when pressed about full public funding for abortions, stem cell research, and parental consent laws. These abortion related issues don't just energize Republicans they also trouble many Democrats. The question to both: Do you fully support abortion?

The same can be said about gay marriage. It helped put Bush back in the White House in 2004 when a significant number of black and Latino evangelicals broke ranks with the Democrats and voted for Bush in the crucial showdown states of Ohio and Florida. Obama and Clinton certainly publicly back the right to civil unions and oppose discrimination against gays in receiving benefits, but what about actual legalizing gay marriage? Obama backpedaled slightly when he took heat for his appearance with one time gay bashing gospel singer Donnie McClurkin in South Carolina late last year. He assured that he supported gay rights. Meanwhile, Hillary has mostly been silent on that question. The question: Do you fully support gay marriage?

In 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis fumbled and bumbled when blindsided during a nationally televised debate with an emotionally laden question about the death penalty. George Bush, Sr. seized on that fumble and it hurt Dukakis. The death penalty is still very much a soul searching and gut tearing problem for many. It has pitted victim's rights groups, prosecutors and conservatives on one side against civil libertarians, black and Latino elected officials, and death penalty opposition groups on the other side. The question: Do you oppose the death penalty?

Two weeks before the CNN debate, anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly announced that he plans to plop measures outlawing affirmative action on the ballot in a dozen or more states in the fall. This has all the makings of yet another tongue wagging wedge issue, and thus a potential minefield for Obama and Clinton. Being Democrats, a woman and an African-American, the assumption is that both will be staunch champions of affirmative action without any reservation. But would they be? That was also the assumption about Bill Clinton. But he did as much as some Republicans to whittle down the scope of affirmative action. The question: Do you fully support affirmative action?

There will likely be one, maybe more vacancies, on the Supreme Court during the White House tenure of the next president. In the past two decades Supreme Court picks have been among the closely watched, speculated about, and fought over of any of a president's appointees. And rightly so, they make law and public policy that impacts on the lives of millions for generations to come, and it's a lifetime job.

Past and present Republican presidents have been notorious for their anti-abortion, pro police power, states rights, and strict constructionist litmus tests for their court nominees. Democratic presidents have placed no such test on their nominees at least publicly. The question: What is your standard for picking a Supreme Court judge?

These questions dangle loosely in the political air and the public's mind. How Obama or Clinton answers the questions are not necessarily presidential deal breakers for both. But answer they must, and that can't happen unless the questions are asked. They should be at the next CNN Democratic debate at the end of February.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).