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|
|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?