|A LOOK AT THE AGENDA|
January 4, 2000
TERENCE SMITH: For the past six months the NewsHour has been gathering suggestions from guests and viewers about what they believe are the most important issues the presidential candidates should address this campaign season. Altogether, nearly 19,000 viewers proposed more than 40 different topics via the Internet and snail mail.
TITO MEYER, Plano, Texas: The only critical issue is campaign finance reform. Without meaningful reform, we will not see the work done by the federal government that we need, such as health care delivery and cost reform, gun control and tax reform.
TERENCE SMITH: When the agenda 2000 series concluded in December, the number one topic was campaign finance, particularly the pernicious influence viewers believe money has on the political system. After that, in descending order, came health care, education, foreign policy issues, poverty and the wage gap, the leadership qualities of the different candidates, and the budget. Last June, presidential historian Michael Beschloss posed the first questions of agenda 2000 for the country's future chief executive.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: So you have to ask a presidential candidate, number one, how will the country change if you get the White House, and also, what if things go wrong? This economic prosperity won't last forever. What are you going to do about taxes and spending if there is a new recession or, God forbid, a depression? And also in foreign policy, if Russia and China begin to act up as powers that threaten us once again, what can we expect from you? These are all kinds of things that we really have the right to know before we cast a vote.
TERENCE SMITH: In a retirement interview as he stepped down as commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak advised the candidates to think broadly about the country.
GEN. CHARLES KRULAK: The reality is a nation is a superpower not just because of its military strength. A nation is a superpower because of five, what I call elements of national power. One of them is diplomatic, one is military, one is our industrial might, the strength of the industry of the nation. The fourth one is the laboratories and the academic environment that can also be brought to bear as part of the element of national power. And the fifth-- and gaining more importance all the time-- is the information element of national power. This country right now is disposed to use diplomacy and the military, and we seem to be forgetting that we have three other very powerful tools that make us a superpower.
TERENCE SMITH: Agenda 2000 included experts in all these areas. Constitutional scholar Doug Kmiec was thinking ahead to the next Supreme Court when he said:
DOUGLAS KMIEC: I think the issue for political candidates is are they capable of identifying people of legal competence who are in touch with their culture? And that's going to be an important issue in 2000.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the recipients of the so-called Genius Awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation also raised questions about the economy. Physics Professor Shawn Carlson:
SHAWN CARLSON: Well, there are two issues that I think are very important. The first is, what are we going to do with the surplus? How real is the surplus, how long will it actually last, and can it really save Social Security, and is the present Social Security system as it is worth saving?
TERENCE SMITH: More recently, college newspaper editor Omar Kelly wanted the candidates to discuss the future solvency of Social Security.
OMAR KELLY: Right now Social Security is coming out of the checks that I... That I earn, you know, coming out of my wages. However, when I turn 65, there are no guarantees that I'll be able to receive that money back.
TERENCE SMITH: Worker advocate Sara Horowitz, who is also a MacArthur fellow, wanted the candidates to take note of changes in the workforce.
SARA HOROWITZ: About a third of the workforce is working as freelance, part-time, temp, consulting, and this really extends from really low-wage workers up through the middle class. And why this is important is that this whole workforce is just falling of the New Deal safety net. On the low end, they're just going without health insurance and pensions. A third of this workforce is ineligible for unemployment. On the high end, people are struggling to buy health insurance, struggling to figure out how they do their asset allocation to make sure that when they retire, they have a pension. And I think you can see that there's this tremendous kind of economic insecurity in the middle of a time of an economic boom. And that's because work is just so unpredictable.
TERENCE SMITH: New citizen Jacqueline La Flure focused on another social policy: Child care.
JACQUELEINE LA FLURE: I think child care is a big issue in this country-- more so because I have two little girls. But when I looked for child care, when I needed child care, it was very difficult.
TERENCE SMITH: Some issues, like abortion and gun control, provoked probing questions from religious leaders, like Muslim Law Professor Azizah Al-Hibri.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI, University of Richmond: And I need to know what are the candidates going to do to promote certain values in society so as to reduce violence, because guns alone do not produce violence. It's certain moral issues-- when they are lacking in society, we might end up in violence. What are they going to do to promote a society which is civil, where people deal properly with each other and welcome diversity instead of being threatened by it? And what are they going to do to protect the democratic process?
TERENCE SMITH: Essayist Clarence Page called for a debate over an issue that some believe may stretch the Constitution.
CLARENCE PAGE: We need to have a real debate nationally about how closely can government work with faith-based organizations without stepping all over church-state separation.
TERENCE SMITH: Education was the third- ranking priority for viewers who wrote in, and it came up often in NewsHour agenda 2000 discussions. Novelist Charles Johnson wanted clarification.
CHARLES JOHNSON: What should education be? I think every one of our candidates is going to say that he is pro-education, he is an education candidate. But what does that mean?
TERENCE SMITH: The NewsHour asked a few students in San Francisco to read the agenda 2000 letters they wrote for a class assignment. Nidia Mejia:
NIDIA MEDJIA: My school is located in the low-resource part of the city. My question is why do other schools get better things than the one I attend to?
TERENCE SMITH: One mission high school student also raised a foreign policy question that came up repeatedly. Michael Duong:
MICHAEL DUONG: "Is the U.S. police of the world, and why the U.S.? Where is the funding coming from, and when is it appropriate to take action for another country?"
TERENCE SMITH: Author Gish Jen wanted to hear about bioethics.
GISH JEN: I think that so many advances that are being made right now in genetics are huge in their implications. I think that this is the atom bomb of our time, and I would like to hear what the candidates propose to do to kind of foster the deep thinking and the international cooperation which we are going to need to come to grips with some of the stuff that's going on. You, we've produced a smarter mouse. You know, we really have to think about this stuff.
TERENCE SMITH: South Dakota Weekly Newspaper Editor Larry Atkin wanted to hear more about the economic problems of rural America.
LARRY ATKIN: But when things are good, that's when we should be discussing what we can do to keep the farmers and ranchers of this country on their land, because when they're not on the land, when lose them, we also lose communities in rural America.
TERENCE SMITH: Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Annie Proulx also wanted some answers.
ANNIE PROULX, Writer; I would like to hear the candidates discuss what they would o find safe and responsible solutions for the nuclear waste problem. It is a huge problem, it is worldwide; it is pressing.
TERENCE SMITH: But it was Lee Shagin, a teacher from Woodland Hills, California, who provoked headlines with his suggestion.
LEE SHAGIN, Woodland Hills, California: Forget all the other issues. The first candidate to announce he will eliminate all these low-flow toilets wins the next election.
TERENCE SMITH: In late November, columnist Dave Barry decided that was his issue. With the slogan "power to the potty," he fueled his own presidential campaign and invited his fans to rally to the NewsHour online. Nearly 5,000 responded. Despite the low-flow boomlet, the NewsHour's agenda 2000 series demonstrated beyond a doubt that Americans care deeply about a wide variety of complex, important issues and hunger to hear their presidential candidates address them.