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Items Missing From The Agenda: Candidates And The Peggy Lee Effect

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The following piece was produced for the Huffington Post's OffTheBus by NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

By Andrew Stengel

As the presidential primary campaign season winds into the final furlong, candidates are honing their messages. Health care, the war in Iraq, the environment and conservation, terrorism: all are much discussed in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary and caucus states.

A Google search (is there any other kind?) for 2008 election yields nearly 60 million results. Adding various issues to the search term is a telling - if unscientific - measure of the marketplace of campaign-related issues under discussion.

2008 election and...
Education-25,900,000
Environment-18,700,000
Economy 15,500,000
Immigration-15,400,000
Health Care-10,700,000
Terrorism-9,410,000
Iraq War-6,560,000
Poverty-4,990,000

As we know from CSPAN's "Road to the White House" and candidate speeches via YouTube, these campaign themes are regularly discussed, though not necessarily in the Google search result proportions.

Campaigns are, after all, popularity contests. Addressing popular issues might make one popular; addressing less popular issues will likely make one less so. As a result the discussion in campaigns narrows and undergoes what I call the Peggy Lee Effect: Is that all there is? The answer, of course, is no.

Here are the results of a few other searches with "2008 election:"

Habeas Corpus-379,000
Election Reform-311,000
Campaign Finance Reform-131,000

This recent Congressional session saw a flurry of campaign finance reform bills as well as proposals that would allocate public funding for Senate elections, make elections verifiable, more accountable by mandating criminal punishment for voter intimidation and deceptive voter practices. But even if you follow the campaign closely, you might not know about these bills. There are only two candidates who mention campaign finance reform in any serious way--what happens in Congress during a presidential election cycle seems to stay in Congress. Sure, education is an important issue, but is it 83 "Google search times" more so than election reform? Not if we hope to have confidence in the election results in 2008.

Habeas corpus. That's another issue that hasn't really made it on candidates' playlists, even though a bill by Sens. Leahy, Spector and Dodd to restore basic habeas corpus rights, which the Military Commissions Act suspended for Guantanamo detainees, fell short of passage by just four votes. Here too, just two candidates consistently dare utter the Latin term so central to our system of justice that it predates our own Constitution.

Together, issues and ideas that are popular during campaigns and those that have a profound impact on the health of our democracy are in discordant harmony. Over the next three months and beyond, if candidates discuss only what's likely to win the ultimate popularity contest--Prom King or Queen---then that's definitely not all there is.

Andrew Stengel is the National Election Advocacy Director for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.