The problem with presidential debates is that they don’t tell us all that much. Candidates are programmed to hew to a strict set of talking points, rarely deviating lest they stumble into a campaign-crushing gaffe. Add a full stage of ten candidates to the mix, and you can’t blame the networks for trying to spice things up.
The host networks of the past two Republican debates tried valiantly. MSNBC approached this task by throwing absurd questions at the candidates that, short of ESP, they could not have possibly anticipated. Questions like “What do you dislike most about America?” certainly forced the candidates to eschew their talking points, but also had the unfortunate result of turning the debate into a political circus with Chris Matthews as the ringmaster. These silly questions told us more about the imaginative folks at MSNBC than they did about how any of the ten Republican candidates would govern if elected president.
To its credit, FOX stuck to substantive questions. The surprise factor was a short segment in which candidates had to respond to questions relating to a hypothetical terrorist attack on U.S. soil. This segment was instructive, but limited in its ability to cover a wide array of subjects.
As the Republican candidates prepare for their third presidential debate tonight, the hosts, CNN, WMUR, and the New Hampshire Union Leader, find themselves faced with a similar challenge: How to break through the monotony of what is quickly becoming a very long campaign season?
Most people watching tonight’s debate are familiar with the candidates’ general positions and are in danger of flipping the channel if they have to listen to Giuliani’s “I hate abortion speech” one more time. But they don’t know how these general positions would play out in a highly charged political environment in which any one of the Republican candidates would have to do daily battle with a likely Democratic Congress.
“Veto or Sign It” poses hypothetical Democratic bills to the candidates and asks if they would veto or sign them. For example, Mitt Romney supported indexing the minimum wage to inflation as a gubernatorial candidate in 2002 but vetoed a bill to raise the minimum wage when he was the governor of Massachusetts. President Bush has indicated that he will sign the minimum wage increase passed by the House and Senate, but what would Romney do if a Democratic Congress sent him a bill indexing the minimum wage to inflation? What would a President Romney do if Congress sent him a universal health-care bill along the lines of the bill he proudly help craft in his own state but now distances himself from — veto or sign it?
Senator McCain opposed the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, but now claims to support extending the tax cuts because anything less would constitute a tax increase. It is not hard to imagine a Democratic Congress sending a President McCain a bill that eliminates the Alternative Minimum Tax on the middle-class but raises the AMT dramatically on upper-income taxpayers. Would John McCain — whose past statements have been rich in class-warfare rhetoric — veto or sign such a bill?
Most Republicans oppose expensive federal mandates on the automobile industry, but John McCain is making global warming a centerpiece of his 2008 campaign. Would a President McCain veto or sign a Democratic bill raising CAFE standards — and the price of cars along with it?
As the mayor of New York, Giuliani opposed NAFTA, but has since offered vague support for free trade. If a Democratic Congress sent a President Giuliani a bill imposing retaliatory tariffs on China, would he veto or sign that bill? Giuliani was also an avid supporter of McCain-Feingold in 2000 and has refused to back away from his previous support as recently as December of 2006. Would Giuliani veto or sign a Democratic bill imposing new restrictions on political speech?
On the campaign trail, it is easy for candidates to make broad-sweeping general statements, but it is hard for voters to envision how the talking points and press releases will translate into specific policy decisions. “Veto or Sign It” allows voters to analyze not only what the candidates claim to believe, but also how they would practice those beliefs in a hostile political environment. And it might just keep the viewers from channel surfing.
– Pat Toomey is the president of the Club for Growth