In the 98 days until the election, Americans will have three chances, at most, to hear Barack Obama and Mitt Romney exchange in-depth ideas about how they plan to lead this country. The candidates – and their interviewers – better not blow it.
In a world of sound bites and 140-character tweets, the three 90-minute-long presidential debates are the best opportunity to dig into how the candidates would approach the stubborn problems facing the nation. Aside from those nights in October, the presidential discourse will be dominated by the trivial or misleading: When, precisely, did Romney leave Bain? Does Obama really hate small business owners?
There is hope; last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the debate formats. The first debate will focus on domestic policy and the last on foreign policy, and each will be built around six 15-minute topic “pods.” Each pod will focus on one issue. (The second debate will feature questions from voters directly to the candidates.)
Some folks may not find that as exciting as boxers vs. briefs. But we hunger for substance, more than entertainment, from the presidential candidates.
History does not bode well. Presidential contenders long ago perfected the art of dodging questions, waxing poetic, saying nothing. So we want moderators who won’t tolerate that. Here are topics we’d like to hear Obama and Romney discuss, in acute detail:
• Jobs. What will the next president do about obstinately slow economic growth? The moderator must insist on more than taxing or not taxing the wealthiest 1 percent at slightly higher rates. Globalization and technological advances have permanently altered the nature of the American economy. Let’s hear a vision for how the U.S. adapts to a world in which other countries will always undercut us on wages and U.S. manufacturers can produce more with fewer workers.
• Debt. Obama’s plan for taxing the wealthy will do little about our $16 trillion debt. If Romney keeps all his promises around entitlements, defense spending and tax cuts, deficits will keep climbing. Demand that the candidates spell out a specific and realistic plan.
• Health care. Should it be a fundamental right in America? What specifically would Romney enact in place of Obama’s health care reform? Whether the Affordable Care Act lives on or is repealed, we need a plan that slows ever-rising costs.
• Financial industry regulation. Can Obama think of any regulation that goes too far? Can Romney think of one he’d accept? What would Romney replace Dodd-Frank with? How would the candidates guarantee no repeat of 2008?
• Immigration. Neither candidate has pursued a specific plan for dealing with the country’s broken immigration system. Pin them down, including about the millions of illegal immigrants already here and the businesses that depend on them.
• Iran. Nothing would be more destabilizing to world peace than Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. And yet a preemptive attack could be disastrous. What would each candidate do?
• Syria. How long will the international community tolerate Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own people? What can the U.S. do about it?
This is just a start. America needs a real leader with real guts to take real stands. Voters deserve answers, not platitudes, from those who seek to lead.