Politics & Policy

What Will Wednesday Look Like?

Anticipating the first night out.

Wednesday night marks the first presidential debate of the 2012 general election. We asked some veteran election watchers what they’re hoping to see happen.



I am hoping to see Romney make a clean, economic argument about why Obama has failed and why Romney’s policies will succeed, with data to back him up.

— James C. Capretta is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


I am hoping to see Mitt Romney indict President Obama for his role in the lousy economy. Romney should not be afraid to say that, when the president and Bill Clinton claim nobody could have repaired our economy in the last four years, they are not being candid with the American people. American history is all about men who rose to the occasion in dark times. Romney also has to make the point that, knowing how business works, he can do what was undoable for Obama. I would like to see Romney politely get under the president’s skin. Romney can do this without being rude because our president, from his days with Toots and Gramps to being cosseted by an adoring media, is not used to being challenged. President Obama is not cute when he is mad, and I am hoping Romney will make him as mad as he made Newt. One other thing: It would be risky, but I’d like to see Romney hang the celebrity label around the president’s neck. Let’s face it, this is a man more suited to hobnobbing with the red-carpet set than to being leader of the free world: “I’m not a celebrity, Mr. President. I may never be invited to party with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. I’m not eye candy to anybody but Ann. But here is something I can promise the American people: When our people are in trouble around the world, I am going to be in the White House and wide awake.”

— Charlotte Hays is director of cultural programs at the Independent Women’s Forum.


Four years after the financial crisis defined the last election, debate moderator Jim Lehrer should ask both candidates whether America now has the free-market, no-bailouts financial system that it deserves, and, if not, why not. Below are a few sample questions taken from my paper on this topic:

Sample question for President Obama: If the Dodd-Frank law fixed Wall Street, how would you explain that just this May, 52 percent of potential voters told pollsters that they had little or no confidence in the financial industry — not much different from the 55 percent who had so little faith in the industry in the weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed?

Sample question for Governor Romney: In your convention speech, you implied that it’s President Obama’s fault that “you’d have to take a big loss on your house” if you sold it. Don’t you think the housing market had to fall significantly from bubble levels in recent years, no matter who was president? If not, what would you have done to prevent that from happening?

Sample question for either candidate:

You’ve both employed top officials tied to the financial industry. Mr. President, your former chief of staff, Bill Daley, was previously a top executive at JPMorgan Chase. Governor Romney, your campaign co-chairman, Tim Pawlenty, just left for the biggest lobbying job on Wall Street, a post that will pay millions of dollars. Does Wall Street have too much clout in Washington? Why do you think Wall Street donors have favored one of you (Mr. Romney) over the other in this election?

— Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


Bold specifics. Our nation faces massive problems — such as $16 trillion in debt, anemic job growth, and looming defense cuts. How would the candidates truly tackle these problems? The president needs to explain how he would get us out of this mess, and Governor Romney should outline how his policies would reverse course. Platitudes like “raising taxes on the rich” that don’t even address our debt are not serious proposals. Where’s the beef? We want specifics.

— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.


Mitt Romney should tell the country that we are tipping into a wholly avoidable recession that will condemn an entire generation of young people to second-class careers and ruin the retirements of millions if it isn’t avoided. He also needs to make clear that the chaos that is engulfing our Middle East policy can be sorted out with strong leadership and American resolve. I expect the president to fall into his poker tells.

— Hugh Hewitt is author of The Brief Against Obama: The Rise, Fall & Epic Fail of the Hope & Change Presidency.


1. Romney compelling the president to take ownership of his record instead of his continued finger-pointing.

2. Romney with a tight, high-level message on the importance of growth as the fundamental in all our problems.

3. Romney avoiding the weeds.

4. Romney smiling at the personal attacks and forcing a rebuttal on the issues.

— Douglas Holtz-Eakin is president of the American Action Forum.


I’m hoping to see signs of a strategy, any strategy besides “Obama’s a nice guy in over his head.” Romney will need to be positive: “Here’s how I’ll jump-start the economy and cut away at the debt.” Yet a polite but firm critique of the president’s record is also a must. Romney needs to tie the state of the economy to Obama’s big-government policies. That was the secret of the Tea Party’s success in 2010. The media won’t tell undecided voters that Obama’s heavy-handed regulations are killing the economy, so Romney’s got to do it himself. In the absence of that, Romney’s “nice guy in over his head” narrative can be parried by “nice guy doing his best with an economy too tough for anyone to fix.”

Romney needs to hit his new themes so hard that no one coming out of the first debate will be confused about what his strategy is. He needs to force the national debate out of terms set by the media and the Obama campaign and onto his own ground instead. If this works the way it’s supposed to, the shift should be easy to notice.

Many conservatives have been offering Romney advice on big-picture strategic moves. I have my favorites, but what I really want is for Romney to aggressively get behind any of his many possible options. He needs to go on offense and shape the narrative coming out of the debates.

That’s what I’m hoping for, but I’m not sure what to expect. Romney may keep playing it safe, with all of safety’s attendant dangers, or he may break out big-time with an obvious new campaign theme. We’ll know soon enough.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.


Mitt Romney must be firm and aggressive and take the offensive on President Obama’s record and not allow Obama to get away with distorting his own record or distorting Romney’s positions. Romney should call Obama out on his divisive race-baiting and class warfare. He should highlight Obamacare’s extraordinary costs and failure to provide coverage for tens of millions of people, contrary to Obama’s claims and promises. He should be relentless in attacking Obama’s economic record and his refusal to accept responsibility for his failed policies or to offer any new policies to turn the economy around. Romney should point out that this is the worst economic recovery in 50 years and the longest period of high unemployment for decades. He should press the president on his obstruction of entitlement reform and his refusal to put forward any plan of his own. In short, Romney should make the case that a second Obama term would result in national bankruptcy and a declining America. He should also hammer him for his war on domestic energy production and small businesses. Romney can be as cordial as he wants to be, but under no circumstances should he make John McCain’s mistake of suggesting that Obama will make a fine president and that our situation is not grave and urgent.

— David Limbaugh is author of The Great Destroyer: Barack Obama’s War on the Republic.


As has been said hundreds of times over the last week or so: There’s nothing like standing next to the president of the United States debating issues, presenting an alternative vision, to make one look presidential. Governor Romney gets that opportunity Wednesday and I’d hope that America tunes in to hear the message that he started to present when he spoke to the NAACP this summer – a message of good stewardship, and of a nation that respects the dignity of the individual in a flourishing civil society where dreams of upward mobility are not absurd. I’d love to hear the clarity he’s demonstrated on the campaign trail on the religious-freedom threat we face — and just who faces it: It’s Hobby Lobby and a lumber company and Wheaton College and the poorest kids in the poorest schools in the president’s backyard, not just Cardinal Dolan. I’d hope he can speak in no small way directly to those 2008 Obama voters who are disappointed, like the ones captured in the compelling documentary The Hope and the Change.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


I would love to see a statement of the obvious, which is not “the economy, stupid”; the obvious is “the economic policies.”

1. Obama did not inherit the worst recession or deficit in our history (see Reagan and WWII), and his economic policies have not only failed, they have made it worse (e.g., real income declined more than twice as much during the  recovery than during the recession; health care, food, and energy costs are up; retirement funds and equity security are down). Obama’s policies have been bad for job growth. Sixty percent of businesses are not hiring until uncertainty is eased over tax, regulatory, and health-care compliance and costs. And they’ve been bad for the national debt and deficits, the biggest drivers of economic duress (unprecedented, record-breaking deficits and debt have ballooned to $110,000 per family). Obama’s failed fiscal policies have incentivized equally harmful monetary policies, such as QE3.

2. Robust economic recovery is not only possible and could be immediate, it is happening today in states and cities implementing sound fiscal budget and reform policies. It has always has – e.g., the recoveries of the 1920s, 1960s, 1980s, and the 2000s were all the result of reducing the disincentives for productivity (higher tax rates), increasing incentives for investment, reducing the government-produced demonstrable drags on growth. History also shows that the deeper the recession, and the greater the economic crisis, the faster and higher the subsequent recovery. Growth and employment in the states that have implemented GOP growth policies (including in the states where 17 new governors took office just last year) is over twice the rate of the states that have raised taxes and increased spending (“stimulated”). 

Romney just has to be clear, consistent, and courageous, not lovable or funny. 

Romney should also lay down the framework for further discussion of how the Obama/progressive agenda has not just resulted in economic stagnation but moral and cultural degradation, from out-of-wedlock births, to a diminished work ethic among able-bodied people to illiterate high-school graduates to an exponential increase in dysfunctional behaviors among juveniles. 

As the Founders said, we cannot sustain a democracy without virtuous citizens.

— Mary Matalin served as assistant to the president and counselor to the vice president in George W. Bush’s administration.


Romney needs to do what his campaign should be doing every day — take a leaf from Reagan’s playbook:

1. Talk about the big picture of America — and paint the contrast between Obama’s philosophy of social engineering and  Romney’s vision of freedom and opportunity, which is the legacy of America from our Founders.

2. He needs to be strong and firm and proud about the fact that he has been wildly successful because of the opportunity America has afforded him and generations of Americans.

3. He needs not to be defensive about “the 47 percent” videotape. He needs to say, “You’re darned right I’m worried about that, because America has never been a country of dependency, and we are heading in a dangerous direction when half of our people are dependent upon the government.”

4. He needs not to get dragged down into the weeds on issues. He needs to keep bringing the argument back to principles and values. Like Reagan did.

The GOP convention was full of wonderful stories of American opportunity and the freedom we have to work hard and succeed. And yes, to fail, because you learn more from the ones you lose than the ones you win. But somehow the Romney campaign has stopped telling that story. And all Karl Rove’s group is doing is running ads about issues, and not principles or values.

This is a big election. If Romney makes it a clear choice about big values and fundamental principles, we win. If he allows Obama to make it about “small ball” — issues, not principles — we lose.

Seems pretty simple to me.

And one more thing: Mitt Romney needs to tell the American people who he is — that his dad didn’t go to college, and worked his way up from being a construction worker and painter to being the head of the company. Because in America, you can do that. And that what Romney’s parents gave him was a first-class education so he could have a better start in life than his dad. And he took that and worked hard and took risks and built a company that has made billions of dollars and created millions of jobs. And that is the America that we want — not one where people depend on the government to hand out food stamps and meager payments and have social workers coming into our homes to tell us how to live.

 Cleta Mitchell is a campaign-finance law attorney and partner in the Washington law office of Foley & Lardner.


A Mitt Romney who shows Americans he understands and cares about them, warts and all.

 Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.


Mitt Romney needs to remember that demeanor counts. In 2000, Gore blew his first debate by sighing during Bush’s answers. Four years later, Bush blew his first debate by scowling during Kerry’s answers. People didn’t remember what they said as much as how they looked and sounded. Romney has to come across as poised and confident.

Romney may not be a stand-up comic but he does need to use humor. Saul Alinsky put it best: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.” That’s especially true with the president, who doesn’t react well to humorous criticism. (That’s why he and his staff have long been obsessed with Rush Limbaugh.)

Romney can score by turning the president’s own words against him. A common denominator of memorably effective debate moments is that one candidate was able to exploit something that his opponent had said: Reagan saying “There you go again” to Carter (1980), Mondale using “There you go again” against Reagan (1984), and Bentsen telling Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” (1988).

On substance, one thing is obvious but bears repeating: Romney has to draw attention to troubling economic indicators, such as the lowest labor-force-participation rate in three decades. He could sum it up by saying: “The lights are blinking red, and the president thinks it’s a Christmas tree.”

The health-care law will come up. One vulnerability is its sheer complexity. Romney could challenge the president to explain how the payments board would work, and why it would not result in rationing.

Romney can challenge the president on events in the Middle East, asking why embassy security was so weak and why the administration initially gave a misleading account of what happened in Libya.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.


On Wednesday I want to see the Yanks win the American League East.

As for the debate, I believe both men have a better chance of losing voters with a gaffe than they do of winning new converts in a positive sense.

At the end of the day, though, it will come down to real-world fundamentals, not debate tactics.

— Pollster Scott Rasmussen is author of The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt.


I am hoping that it will become a debate about big ideas, about what the role of government in society is, about what self-government and constitutionalism really mean. I am hoping that President Obama reveals himself to be a stiff elitist, one who speaks with contempt to anyone who disagrees with him. I am hoping that Governor Romney will be plain-speaking, forthright, and honorable, and not without a sense of humor.

— Peter Schramm is executive director of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.


Mitt Romney must hold the president accountable for the legion of broken promises. To Obama’s expected “I inherited a terrible economy,” Romney should respond, “Yes, but you made it worse after promising to make it better.” And Romney must also demonstrate how four more years of Obama will put America into a domestic- and foreign-policy death spiral from which we are unlikely to recover in time for any of us now living to witness it, if, in fact, it ever occurs.

— Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated USA Today columnist and Fox News contributor.


Mitt Romney needs to get on the offensive on two crucial issues: Obamacare and religious liberty. The spin on both of these issues has been appalling, and he needs to take control to tell voters what is at stake.

There is a reason that religious freedom is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights. Our freedom to follow our religious beliefs is the basis of who we are as a country, and it is seriously threatened by the Obamacare anti-conscience mandate. And Obamacare would undermine the very relationship between government and a free people — making us subjects to a government that literally would have control over life-and-death decisions.

Romney needs to make this clear because there is no better way to explain to the voters what’s at stake in this election.

— GraceMarie Turner is president of the Galen Institute and co-author of ObamaCare Is Wrong for America.

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