Tonight, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska will meet in the one and only vice presidential debate of the 2008 campaign. The Op-Ed editors asked people with knowledge of the vice presidency, the candidates and their records to suggest questions they’d like to hear answered from the stage at Washington University in St. Louis this evening.
It is 9 a.m., and the president is traveling abroad. A terrorist attack on the United States occurs. You have 10 minutes to prepare to move to the now famous bunker at the White House to deal with the incident. Whom will you take with you into the bunker? And, once there, what do you do in the first hour?
You hear all the arguments presented to the president concerning a decision he must make regarding spending for a major national program. The recommendation from the cabinet and staff is clear, but you disagree with them strongly. How and where do you express yourself, assuming you elect to share your views with the president?
— CRAIG FULLER, the chief of staff for Vice President George H. W. Bush from 1985 to 1988.
Senator Biden, do you believe that continued withdrawal of American troops from Iraq will lead to a newly ignited civil war?
Governor Palin, since you were selected as a vice presidential candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given more press conferences to American reporters than you have. Why do you have less confidence in the American press and people than the president of Iran does? And when will you dare to face the press for real?
— ANDREW SULLIVAN, a blogger for The Atlantic and the author of The Conservative Soul.
Senator Biden, you’ve been one of the Senate’s most ardent drug warriors. You helped create the office of “drug czar”; backed our failed eradication efforts in South America; encouraged the government to seize the assets of people merely suspected of drug crimes; pushed for the expanded use of racketeering and conspiracy laws against drug offenders; advocated the use of the military to fight the drug war; and sponsored a bill that holds venue owners and promoters criminally liable for drug use by people attending concerts and events.
Today, illicit drugs are as cheap and abundant as they were decades ago. Would you agree that the anti-drug policies you’ve championed have failed? If not, how have they succeeded?
— RADLEY BALKO, a senior editor at Reason magazine.
As governor of Alaska, you have worked with Democrats like me to achieve goals we both shared. Since becoming the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party, you’ve done nothing but ridicule Democrats and our goals. How do you expect to be able to get help from Democrats — either as governor or as vice president — after your performance on the campaign trail?
— MIKE DOOGAN, a member of the Alaska House of Representatives, a former columnist for The Anchorage Daily News and the author of the novel Skeleton Lake.
Senator Biden, you told me once that, shortly before the 2004 election, you advised John Kerry to respond harshly to a new Osama bin Laden videotape. You described the conversation this way: “I’m on the phone, I e-mail, I say, ‘John, please, say three things’: ‘How dare bin Laden speak of our president this way.’ No. 2, ‘I know how to deal with preventing another 9/11.’ No. 3, ‘Kill him.’” You then threw up your hands in disgust and said of Senator Kerry, “He didn’t make any of it. Let’s get it straight. None of it.”
This story was entertaining, but it wasn’t strictly accurate. It turned out that you did not, in fact, even speak with Senator Kerry until well after he had issued a vigorous denunciation of bin Laden. This episode is one of several in which you have appeared to exaggerate your importance. Recently, you spoke of being “shot at” in Iraq. This, too, turned out to be false. Why should voters trust you, after you have made so many provably embroidered assertions?
— JEFFREY GOLDBERG, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.
Russia and the United States possess about 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Governor Palin, do you favor negotiations that would continue reducing their numbers when our current agreements expire? If so, would you favor agreements that are subject to strict verification, like those negotiated by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush during the cold war, or agreements without verification, like the one signed by Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin?
Senator Biden, Russia has objected to the plan by the United States to station missile interceptors in Poland and associated radars in the Czech Republic and has offered instead to participate in a joint program of missile defense. Bearing in mind that Russian territory provides ideal locations for defenses against countries like North Korea and Iran, would you support a joint program instead of the one now planned?
— JACK F. MATLOCK Jr., the ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991 and the author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.
The claim by Dick Cheney that he was exempt from certain disclosure requirements because the vice president was a “legislative officer” has been greeted with outrage. But the main power the Constitution grants the vice president is a legislative one — breaking a tie vote in the Senate.
So, Governor Palin, Senator Biden, doesn’t Mr. Cheney have a point?
But, then, if the vice president is a legislative officer, how can he wield the vast executive powers that Mr. Cheney has exercised, including orchestrating and supervising a warrantless wiretapping program?
Can the vice president shift between branches at his convenience? If not, what, in your view, is the constitutional status of the vice presidency?
— GENE HEALY, the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.
Governor Palin, in a February interview you told me that “energy is a cause of war.” You said, “I personalize it, realizing my oldest child, my son, is in the Army now. He’s going to be deployed in a matter of months.” You added, “We’re fighting over, in some sense, energy sources.”
Governor, could you describe how, in general, energy is a cause of war, and how, specifically, it is a cause of war in Iraq?
— PETER MAASS, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War.
The Shiite religious parties that are Iran’s closest allies in the Middle East dominate Iraq’s central government and its oil-rich south. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has helped the Sunni militia known as the Awakening to take control of Iraq’s Sunni center. The militia is led by Baathists, the very people we removed from power when we invaded Iraq in 2003. In Iraq’s north, the Kurds run what is effectively an independent state. Senator McCain has said, “Our goal is an Iraq that can stand on its own as a democratic ally and a responsible force for peace in its neighborhood.” Governor Palin, how can an Iraq dominated by pro-Iranian theocrats, Baathists and Kurdish separatists become a democratic ally?
Senator Biden, the United States began to win the battle against the Sunni extremist group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia only last year when it enlisted the Awakening movement. Is it realistic to expect the Awakening to loyally serve a Shiite-led Iraqi government that many Sunnis see as an Iranian proxy? Or to expect that Iraq’s government will accept Sunni troops whom they believe are a Baathist fifth column?
You have espoused a plan for an Iraqi confederation in which Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds could have controlled their own security forces in separate self-governing regions. The Bush administration has created the Sunni army. Should we now encourage the Sunnis to form their own autonomous region, as allowed under Iraq’s Constitution, and make the Awakening the army of that region?
— PETER W. GALBRAITH, the author of Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies.
Senator Biden, in 2005 you supported legislation that altered the bankruptcy code in favor of lenders (including credit card companies, many of which are based in your home state, Delaware) and made the terms for consumers seeking to declare personal bankruptcy more stringent. Are you as pro-consumer as the Obama campaign’s rhetoric suggests? Do you think the 2005 bankruptcy bill helped contribute to the unsustainable debt burden many consumers now face?
— ERIC WASSERSTROM, a managing director at a hedge fund.
Governor Palin, as we both know, Alaskans are a special breed. I grew up in Fairbanks, a few hundred miles north of Wasilla. I was proud to live on the frontier, far from civilization. Like many Alaskans, I lived in a log house on a dirt road, with no city water, sewer system or trash collection. We didn’t get much from our government, and we didn’t want much.
I love my frontier state, but the first thing I learned when I moved to the Lower 48 was how unlike the rest of the country Alaska is. How would you govern America when as mayor and governor, you hardly had to provide basic public services? In Wasilla, less than a tenth of the town is connected to the sewer system.
Alaska’s economy runs on oil proceeds — we don’t even pay income tax. And despite our disdain for Washington, we are given hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government each year. How would you handle our financial crisis when you’ve never had to balance a budget while tax revenue fell?
— RACHEL KLEINFELD, the executive director of the Truman National Security Project.