With the presidential debates about to begin, political pundits are full of advice for Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama, according to conventional wisdom, should try to provoke McCain’s legendary temper. McCain, the thinking goes, must ruthlessly attack Obama’s inexperience and elitism — to make sure, as his own campaign manager recently said, that this election is not about issues.
Our advice: forget the conventional wisdom. Voters desperately want that “straight talk” McCain once prided himself on, but which, in his run for the White House, he has abandoned in favor of crooked and warped pandering. They want to hear what the candidates really think is happening in the world, in the country, to the economy, and in Washington — and how the two men hope to tackle those problems.
As it happens, we have reached this stage of the campaign with two presidential candidates who, for whatever reasons, polls show most Americans like, trust, and respect. That’s certainly a testament of some kind to the voting public, who in extraordinary numbers took part in the careful selection of the nominees.
But the two choices for the office have enormous differences in policy, ideology, and priorities that voters need to hear — unscripted, unfiltered, and preferably without the petty squabbling over trivialities that has so far been a hallmark of this campaign.
Presenting such a serious debate will require some adjustment for both candidates. Obama, always a better orator than debater, needs to present specific ideas without lofty grandeur — and yet be compelling and forceful, rather than, as he often is in these situations, cautious and humorless.
McCain, a skilled panderer — and a quick wit — used those skills to outperform his Republican primary rivals in front of audiences who knew what they wanted to hear. Now, McCain must forgo easy point-scoring temptations if he is to convince swing voters that he is the right man to tackle challenges for which they themselves — and even he and Obama — don’t know all the answers.
On foreign policy — the pre-arranged topic for this Friday’s debate — McCain, mainly because of his age, tough talk, and former POW status, is presumed to hold an advantage. But Obama needs to stick confidently to his guns: he is right in his more nuanced, diplomatic approach, and the electorate agrees.
In particular, Obama should repeatedly demonstrate that McCain approaches world affairs with the same “us-against-them” cowboy mentality that people negatively associate with President George W. Bush.
McCain, for his part, must explain to the American people why he holds the “bomb, bomb Iran” world-view he does. His perception of the danger of Russian expansionism, for example, may not be wrong; still, his explanation of the matter must invoke more than reflexive solidarity with Georgia. His belief that we must stay the course to “victory” in the Iraq War is similarly empty without an explanation of what victory in Iraq means to him.
Actual, instead of pretend, straight talk is just as urgently, if not more so, needed in domestic affairs. Although Obama has recently begun to indicate that under current financial conditions some of his proposed programs will, at minimum, need to be delayed, both candidates have promised much more than any responsible budget could contain, even if we did not have to contend with Washington’s required role in salvaging the financial markets.
Obama and McCain have, to their discredit, largely treated the current crisis as just another political bauble to bat back and forth at each other, with pandering platitudes and trivial accusations. That is an unserious response to a serious matter, and they need to speak frankly to their audience about what has happened, and what will happen.
Obama would be well-served, we believe, by offering the country some of that audacious hope that drew people to him in the first place. He can speak frankly about the grave state of affairs — not just on Wall Street, but in the job market, in health care, at the gas pump, and around the world — while reminding voters that we have always faced these challenges, and tell them how we will do so again.
McCain has the more difficult challenge, and here again he needs to level with the voters about what specific solutions he would apply to the problems at hand. The words “change” and “reform” — which he has recently appropriated from his opponent’s vocabulary — on their own do not make a policy platform, no matter who is mouthing them. McCain notoriously offered no economic-policy specifics at his nominating convention — beyond the pledge to “drill, baby, drill” — and got away with it, but must not be allowed to do so in these debates.
Which leads us to the vital job of the moderators of these debates. They must not allow these forums to go to waste on trivialities and phony controversy. Nor should the moderators make themselves part of the story. Most important, it is their job to challenge Obama if he substitutes rhetoric for specifics, and McCain if he offers BS instead of answers. We are hoping for a redeeming moment for journalism, having spent much of the past two years with the inanity of addle-brained, self-important, navel-gazing presidential coverage.
We are confident that voters, if presented with serious debates on the issues, will see the stark differences between McCain’s more-of-the-same, Bush-like mentality and Obama’s hope-filled view of a new way, and will make a wise decision at the polls in November — conventional wisdom be damned.