With the conventions concluded (inconclusively) and the presidential race still breathlessly close, the next big chance for a game-changing development comes with the debates, scheduled for Oct. 3, 16, and 22, with the single vice-presidential debate on Oct. 11.
The possibility for a decisive turning point increases due to the obvious vulnerability of both candidates to difficult questions they’ve mostly managed to dodge or fudge in the course of the campaign. For instance:
For President Obama: At the Charlotte convention, your supporters enthusiastically cheered for “Four More Years.” The question for you is four more years of what? Another four years of unemployment above 8 percent, annual deficits more than a trillion dollars a year, and gridlock and polarization in Washington? In your acceptance speech you acknowledged that the last four years have been difficult and painful. At the same time your campaign slogan is "Forward" and you express determination to press ahead with the policies of your first term. If you don't intend to change your approach, why should the American people expect a better result?
For Governor Romney: The U.S. economy suffered a major collapse in September 2008, and most Americans blame President George W. Bush for the disaster. Do you also blame President Bush and his policies? Where would you differ most dramatically in your approach to the economy, and how do you answer the claims of your opponent that you just want to go back to the “same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place”?
For President Obama: You promise to spend more in federal “investments” in high-speed rail, education, solar energy, college loans, high-tech research, and other priorities. But the only proposal to pay for that spending involves a modest increase in tax rates for the richest 3 percent of taxpayers. According to your administration’s own figures, these tax hikes will generate at best $80 billion a year—reducing the current deficit by barely 7 percent, while paying nothing to fund all your plans for new federal programs. In your acceptance speech, you criticized your opponent’s arithmetic. How are your numbers supposed to add up for you—especially in terms of your announced goal of cutting our dangerous deficit in half?
For Governor Romney: Your tax plan calls for across-the-board cuts of 20 percent in tax rates—which would bring lavish savings for millionaires and billionaires, and no real savings for the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax. Is that fair? And even in the unlikely event that you manage to keep these changes revenue neutral by closing unspecified loopholes, how can you make real progress on closing the deficit—especially with the sharply increased defense spending you propose?
For President Obama: The number of households getting some form of welfare check from the government has sharply increased in your first term. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? According to the Senate Budget Committee, close to 110 million Americans now live in households getting federal money–and that doesn’t include the 50 million more that depend on retirement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Will you reduce these numbers in your second term, and if so, how? And if you don’t reduce the numbers, do you see a danger in barely half the people paying federal taxes to fund benefits to the other half?
For Governor Romney: You earned more than $20 million in 2010 and paid taxes at an overall rate of less than 15 percent. For the future, should people in your fortunate situation pay more—or even less? Wouldn’t your proposed tax plan reduce your own tax payments well below 15 percent and wouldn’t that mean that taxpayers in the middle class would need to pay more to keep your proposal revenue neutral?
For President Obama: Most Americans believe government is too big, and tries to do too much, and interferes too much in the world of business and the private affairs of middle-class Americans. What would you do to reduce the size, cost, and power of the federal government?
For Governor Romney: Most Americans believe that corporations and Wall Street wield too much power over society at large and play a corrupting role in our political system. What would you do to reduce the power and influence of corporations and Wall Street?
For President Obama: You now talk about immigration reform as a "moral imperative." Your predecessor invested a great deal of political capital in fighting for the same sort of reform you now say you endorse. Why did you ignore this issue during the two years your party controlled both houses of Congress and only discover it when an election approached? How do you address the widespread assumption that you only faced the problem in the midst of the campaign as a desperate ploy to secure Latino votes?
For Governor Romney: You oppose any path to legalization for 12 million people who live and work in this country—even those who were brought here as children through no fault of their own, and even those who may have lived here for 20 years. Do you really want these millions to continue to live in the shadows, with no legal status and no ability to assimilate into the fabric of America? Is it realistic to expect that they will all "self-deport" as you suggested in the primary? And even if they did, wouldn't it cripple the economies of states like Arizona, California, and even Texas—since nearly a third of undocumented immigrants live in homes that they own?
For President Obama: Your party convention in Charlotte expressed impassioned support for redefining marriage, but for the first three years of your presidency you consistently opposed same-sex marriage. What changed? Did you get a sudden revelation that allowed you to “evolve,” or was it simply a raw political calculation that endorsing gay marriage would help your reelection campaign more than it would hurt?
For Governor Romney: You say you support constitutional amendments to restrict marriage to one man and one woman and to limit access to abortion. Since any such amendments would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, and then ratification by 38 of the 50 states, you surely know that such constitutional changes will never occur. Is your support for these amendments anything more than a meaningless gesture to placate elements of your party’s base?
For President Obama: When asked to identify the biggest mistake of your first term, you recently told an interviewer it involved a lack of communication with the American people, or the provision of a convincing narrative to frame your policies. Do you really believe you made no serious, substantive mistakes in policy? And wouldn’t you enhance your credibility by listing those errors now?
For Governor Romney: In your campaign, you naturally concentrate on the president’s purported failures but never mention the achievements of his presidency that could count as successes. Wouldn’t you enhance your credibility by listing those successes now?
For President Obama: You take great pride in your handling of the war on terror and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. But weren’t you actually following policies well-established by the Bush administration, including the specific timetable for bringing troops home from Iraq? What’s the most significant change you made in Bush anti-terror policies, and why did that alteration make America safer?
For Governor Romney: The American people give the president high marks on his handling of the war on terror. How would you alter his policies, and why would those changes enhance our national security?
For President Obama: In your acceptance speech, you repeated themes from four years ago about seeking bipartisan cooperation and transcending petty bickering with Congress. But in the same address, you derided the Republicans as offering to downtrodden Americans nothing more than a “you’re on your own” philosophy, and feeling concern only for the rich. If the Republicans really are so selfish, callous, and extreme, how can you hope to work with them–especially after the tenor of your campaign, and with the strong likelihood that they will maintain control of the House of Representatives? Why would cooperation increase in your second term?
For Governor Romney: Ever since the Democrats took over the Congress in the last two years of the Bush administration, we’ve seen bitter polarization in Washington with reluctance on both sides to get together to face the nation’s most punishing problems. How would things change under a Romney presidency–especially with strident, outspoken partisans in positions of power in your party and the very real possibility that Democrats maintain their hold on the Senate? Some of your GOP colleagues have made the defeat of President Obama their top priority. Wouldn’t the record of the last four years encourage the Democrats to maintain the same implacable opposition to you?
I suspect that many of these questions will—or should—turn up in the October debates. As a partisan Republican, I can imagine (or even compose) stronger, more adequate answers for the Romney questions listed above than for the challenges to President Obama. That’s why I strongly suspect that the impact of our economic situation and the nature of the key issues tilt the presidential playing field in a GOP direction. Nevertheless, it’s still easy to imagine either Romney or Obama fumbling or stumbling over aggressive debate questions like those posed here.
To run for president in this difficult moment in history any candidate must believe at some level in his own superhuman powers. But even the Man of Steel himself (that’s Superman, not Stalin) could begin to lose strength when faced with questions of Kryptonite.