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Debate moderators and voters should be asking presidential candidates what they would do to help heal our national divisions, writes Michael V. Murphy.

The question to ask in 2020

Murphy is director of the FixUS initiative at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which educates the public about issues with significant fiscal policy impact.

A dozen Democratic primary debates have already been announced, with the first taking place this week. While everything from Medicare for All to impeachment and immigration are sure to be raised, I fear not a single question will be asked on the topic most needing discussion – the state of our democracy.

Whether in Iowa living rooms, New Hampshire union halls or South Carolina coffee shops, the presidential primaries offer a chance to raise issues that often fall off the radar once nominees are chosen and the general election is under way. The first primaries and caucuses are a mere seven months away and there's no doubt that countless advocacy groups are already on the ground, organizing and hoping to elevate their issues with both voters and candidates.

Having run a coalition effort to bring attention to the importance of the national debt in the 2016 cycle, I'm intimately familiar with the work being undertaken by advocacy groups in these early states. Unfortunately it is now four years later, and our debt situation has greatly deteriorated. Next year, the federal government will spend more on interest payments on the debt than it spends on children – in other words, we'll be doing more to finance our past than invest in our future.

While candidates for federal office are and must be asked how they will fix the debt, this time around there is a more pressing question that needs to be asked – one that affects not only the debt, but the ability to make progress on a multitude of issues confronting the electorate.

The question goes something like this:

"My primary issue of concern is [fill in the blank], but politics in Washington have been mired in gridlock for years. Even when things are passed in Washington, it is often by party-line votes with the risk that it will be overturned after the next election given how divided we are as a nation. As [president, senator or House member] what changes will you make to help heal our national divisions and ultimately improve our government's ability to function and address pressing challenges? And how will you lead in Washington to make sure these changes are enacted?"

Pinning candidates down on specifics here is important, given that politicians for years have paid lip service to the need to bring us together to solve problems but to no avail.

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