Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Debate Prep: 9 Questions and 2 Famous "Zingers"

The first debate in this election should by far be the most important, because early voting has already started in over half of the states, and in the last election fully 30 percent of votes occurred before election day - that number should only increase this year.  Technically, Wednesday's debate is supposed to be on domestic policy.  I think that's a problem this year, so I'm including questions on foreign policy, too.

The national polls have the race in almost a dead heat.  But because of the (stupid, antidemocratic) electoral college, that really doesn't matter.  In the swing states, Obama has a pretty clear advantage in the polls... right now.  So everybody is talking about this debate as Romney's Last Stand, his last real chance to lay the foundation for a turn-around in the campaign.  Because of that, I've heard a lot of talk about Romney preparing all manner of "zingers," - presumably under the theory that "zingers" are a way to create a lasting impression that can carry through to the election and even beyond.  And that's fine.  Zingers have their place in politics.  But for one thing, remember that in its time, Dukakis' "Joe Isuzu" line was considered a dramatic zinger...

And also I'd like you to listen to the context of two of the most famous political zingers of all time, and to realize how they were used, and what they meant over the long run.

1. Here is "you're no Jack Kennedy," in its context:

The point was for Bentsen to draw a distinction between the length and quality of experience that JFK had and Dan Quayle's. It also ended up being about character. But remember that Quayle did an okay job at making his point beforehand - the zinger only worked because of the stark contrast people saw between the two politicians (Quayle and JFK). And remember that ultimately, Quayle became VP.

2. And here is Reagan's "there you go again" to Carter, in context:

Carter is a wonky sort. People tire of policy details at times. But Reagan's zinger worked because of the fact that people were tired of Carter explaining things to them, maybe even talking down to them - AND (and this is an important AND for Romney) because Reagan was very, very likable.  Carter's point was valid, and his presentation wasn't bad.  But Reagan captured the tone of how the electorate was feeling, and Reagan had the deft touch of a politician who knows tone.

Mitt Romney is tone-deaf.  This poses a problem in the zinger strategy.  Even President Obama has to be careful of his tone and stay more positive if he wants to do well in the debate.  But Mitt Romney cannot appear to be primarily negative - nobody but the conservative base wants Romney to attack Obama.  People want Romney to explain what he wants to do.  In this vein, let's take a look at the second time Reagan tried to use "there you go again," against Mondale:

Mondale lost the election.  And he lost it huge.  But Mondale was right, on policy.  And Reagan knew it - look at his face while Mondale is challenging him.

...Which brings us to my questions for the debate.

I think that there has been too little focus on policy in this campaign, and the way you can tell that is by looking at the very positive reaction to Bill Clinton's DNC speech - which was all-policy. So the questions I want to ask are actually not all that specific, but go to teasing out the men's beliefs about the role of government and about how policy should look - so that voters can make an informed decision. I don't expect for these questions to elicit the answers i'd like, because lately debates have become about fitting the question to the talking point you want to give, rather than about considered, reason-based answers.

These questions are all for both candidates. They are questions I don't know the answers to - at least not from the point of view of these two politicians.  so they are terrible questions from a lawyerly point of view. But I hope that they would manage to give voters an idea of what they could expect if they vote for each man. Even if what they could expect is obfuscation.


1. Which of your policies/policy ideas do you believe has produced/will produce the most jobs, and why?

China Is Building Stuff

2. What should our 21st Century Labor Market look like?  Should it include labor unions?  Should it include outsourcing?  Should it include renegotiated trade treaties?

Are We There Yet?

3. Should we end the war in Afghanistan sooner than the end of 2014?

Working Together for Haiti

4. Should our foreign policy be bipartisan?  Should politics, as it has at times in our history, end at the water's edge?

Hint: This Guy

5. What caused our economic "Great Recession"?  

Do We Want Democracy Where People Don't Like Us?

6. Should we support democracy in countries where the likely outcome will be anti-American governments?  How should we deal with anti-Americanism?

Hint: Our Biggest Global Foe Is NOT Russia.

7. What international area/movement/event do you think poses the greatest threat to America, and which concerns you the most (if they are not the same)?  How would you address those concerns?

The Johnson Treatment
8. How do/should politicians get things done in a modern Washington?  What place should bipartisanship have in determining policy - and what are the responsibilities of the political parties in ensuring progress rather than stalemate in Washington?

Do We Trust Americans - Even Women Americans - To Make Their Own Choices?

9. Is there a right to privacy in America?  Does it extend to women?  Should it be protected by the Supreme Court?

So those are my questions.  What would you ask?


  1. My questions would be about the morality of our "war" on terrorism, and what exactly each candidate would feel is going too far, and how exactly do they expect us to "win" this war (and what would a victory look like? Is it even possible?).

    I'd ask them what rights and treatment they think non-Americans are owed. What are the universal human rights, and what are rights that only we get to have? I'd ask how they'd feel if Iran, Al Qaeda, North Korea started drone attacks to take out their enemies, and why it is ok for us to do it. What is their definition of terrorism? Be specific!

    I'd ask really hard questions about the NDAA, and the growing powers the executive branch has. Do they see a limit as to the president's power? Are they willing to say what it is?

    That's my biggest beef with Democrats and progressives -- some of what Obama has done is far worse than what Bush and Cheney did, but nary a peep from the so-called liberals.

    ". . . Does it extend to women? . . ."

    Sheesh, that's a loaded question. I'm hard pressed to think of any one who genuinely, truly believes there is a Constitutional right to privacy but it should only apply to men.

    Based on the photo you put next to this question, I assume this question is really about abortion. And there are really two issues (at least).

    The first is what is a right to privacy, what does it mean, how far does it extend, and whether it is truly implicit in the Constitution.

    But regardless of what the answer is, from the pro-life perspective, the right to life is the preeminent right -- without it, all other rights are meaningless. And just as one cannot exercise one's right to free speech/gun ownership/private property at the expense of another person's right to live (and so you can't yell fire in a crowed theatre, you can't run around shooting people, you can't defend your property with hidden death traps), one person's right to privacy cannot trump another person's right to live. Framing it as a gender issue is very effective in breeding an "us v. them," "war on women" attitude, but it misses the point entirely.

  2. Those are great questions. And you've made me think about drone strikes far more than anyone else has - largely because so few people are talking about it. It's interesting to me how if liberals don't talk about these things in the public sphere, nobody does. I mean, Romney's talking about bringing back torture.

    It is a loaded question on women. But they deserve it. :-)

    There's no woman running for president, and one ticket is threatening to get rid of birth control, and fair pay rules that are beneficial to women, and all while acting like we are idiots (and apparently mostly moochers). That's not okay with me. I'm tired of the right-wing takeover on women's rights. And, I'd argue that by taking the position Romney/Ryan have on birth control, abortion, and rape, they are saying that the right to privacy - if it exists - does not apply to women.

    But even if you object to my framing, if what you are looking for is a candidate who says that that's the wrong question to ask, then presumably you could get that from the answer they would give, right?

  3. " It's interesting to me how if liberals don't talk about these things in the public sphere, nobody does. I mean, Romney's talking about bringing back torture."
    God, yes. I mean, I know certain Catholic bloggers who are making a big stink about drone killings and torture and the just war theory, and of course Glen Greenwald does all he can to make progressives pay attention, but yeah -- the fact that Romney is WORSE on this instills despair in me, as Obama's actions vis a vis religious freedoms does. And if the democratic party doesn't care about this, what hope is there?

    "one ticket is threatening to get rid of birth control"
    Are they actually threatening to make artificial birth control illegal, or are they just saying that employers should not be forced to pay for it? That is an important distinction, especially given the rhetoric that a person's sexual activity is totally private ("my sex life is nobody's business but mine! but you have to pay for it!").

    "But even if you object to my framing, if what you are looking for is a candidate who says that that's the wrong question to ask, then presumably you could get that from the answer they would give, right?"

    Well, yeah. In my fantasy world, pro-life candidates would be talking a lot about innocent life and the right to live and two wrongs not making a right, about how life isn't a zero-sum game between women and babies where when one wins the other loses, about our social and moral obligations to help other people, but they don't. Partly because they don't have the theological/moral/philosophical knowledge to articulate the issues properly, partly because they are coming at it from the wrong perspective (feminism bad!), partly because they don't actually care about abortion they just care about votes, and partly because some of them are jerks.

    Which is why I am not voting for Romney and Ryan, no matter how much they tell me I have to because they claim to be pro-life. But I also get fed up with Democrats who don't take pro-life people seriously (don't forget, I'm not a woman, I'm a man with breasts. Or I'm a weak-willed woman physically and psychologically worn out from all the children I'm having and under the dominion of Mr. Beadgirl and the Pope), and who have dropped the "rare" part of their platform on abortion (so much for that common ground about making abortion unnecessary), and who assume that because I'm a woman all I care about is getting free abortions and birth control (why worry my pretty little head about our foreign policy or the slow degradations of our freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism?).

    I am full-on disgusted with both parties and both candidates. Plus I feel royally betrayed by Obama. And I feel completely powerless because neither side takes my views seriously.

  4. You feel betrayed because of the drone policy? Or something else?

    Romney/Ryan support personhood, which would outlaw most hormonal forms of birth control. They also support the Blunt Amendment, which would allow any employer to stop employees from getting anything covered by health insurance that they object to, for any reason. It's way more than birth control.

  5. Because he was supposed to be the Bush corrective, closing down Guantanamo, getting out of the wars (granted, he has started that, but it is taking too long and I am concerned about his willingness to start others), reducing the carte blanche the executive branch has given itself to fight terrorism, etc. Plus he was supposed to fix the economy! :>

    I was not aware about the personhood thing (I mean, I am aware of the movement, not the Romney/Ryan support), and yeah, I guess that would outlaw certain forms of birth control. I guess I am ok with that, given that I'd rather err in favor of the right to life than the right to privacy. And there are equally effective alternatives to hormone-based ABC that no one is paying attention to, and there are health and environmental risks to hormonal ABC that people are also ignoring. I think we would benefit from a more detailed and nuanced discussion about controlling fertility in general, rather than resorting to knee-jerk assumptions and claims. Also, healthier and more responsible and mature attitudes towards sex. But that may be a lost cause ;>

    I don't know anything about the Blunt amendment, and need to read up on it -- obviously there needs to be some sort of check in place to keep employers from denying procedures to reduce costs and framing it as a moral issue, or from claiming whackadoodle moral objections. But then, this gets back to my growing realization that having employer-based health insurance leads to all sorts of problems and abuses and inequities.

  6. Employer-based insurance is a serious problem, but it's still the best insurance most people can afford. And since Obamacare didn't include the real government option that would have helped, it's an open question whether it will get better soon. I guess you could point to the increase in Medicaid, but that's just problematic for a bunch of reasons.

    Definitely there should be a discussion about birth control, but that would require a serious info session beforehand :-)

    The Blunt Amendment sucks. I'm hoping it was poor drafting, but I kind of tend to doubt it.