Tonight's debate has a different dynamic that will change how the candidates answer the questions. When it's a moderator asking them, a deflected answer is filtered through the audience's if not disdain for, then at least indifference to, the media. In many cases, the public likes to see candidates thwart the media, giving those snobbish, elite reporters their due.
But when the candidate ignores an Everyman's question, it's a direct snub. They don't like it. Hence, I expect it will be less likely that McCain and Obama will do as much dodging.
So what will be the questions asked? I'm not sure. I don't know how they will be screened. But I hope Obama is ready for certain ones:
Q: Won't raising taxes hurt the economic recovery?
A: My opponent's entire economic plan revolves around only one solution, which is to cut taxes. During the past eight years, we've had some of the largest tax cuts in history. How do you like the economy we got from those cuts?
My opponent and his Republicans trickle down theorists continue to regurgitate the discredited idea that tax cuts help the economy. Truth is, there is no evidence that this is true. Our country has done well in times when taxes were raised, for example, the 90s under Bill Clinton. And the country has tanked with thousands of jobs lost and wages reduced when taxes are cut. For example, the last eight years. So the next time you hear John McCain regurgitate that tired line about tax cuts, ask him for proof, and then do the research yourself. It simply isn't true.
Under my plan, 95% of all Americans will get a tax cut, but not the top 5%. Adjusting the tax code will help level the playing field. But those tax cuts alone won't fix our economy. We need greater transparency in the financial markets, so consumers know what's in that too-good-to-be-true mortgage. We need better regulations to prevent the excesses of Wall St. — regulations that my opponent has consistently opposed during his nearly three decades in Washington. We need reform of corporate boards of directors, who are hand picked by the CEO. Those directors, given a huge payment to serve on the board, then turn around and approve huge salaries and golden parachutes for the very CEOs they are supposed to be holding accountable. It's a shell game. Bottom line is that we need to make sure that the corporate executives have to work just as hard as the worker on the assembly line to make money. It's called fairness. My opponent obviously doesn't believe in the American value of fairness. His tax cut program will give thousands to the super rich and chump change for the rest of us.
Q: What about William Ayers, Tony Rezko and Jeremiah Wright? What does that tell us about your character?
A. You know this tactic. It's from the Karl Rove handbook. When you don't have answers for the questions people are asking, smear your opponent. I think the American people are tired of it. The stakes are too high for us to be diverted from the key issues we face as a nation.
If you want to judge me based on what someone who lives in my neighborhood did when I was eight years old, that's your privilege. If my opponent wants to talk about those people, that's his privilege. If he wants, we can talk about Charles Keating — or even first wives — if he wants to debate ethics, morality and truthfulness.
I want to talk about what keeps you up at night — our kids educational opportunities, our shrinking 401ks, our healthcare, and our collective future in a world that has lost respect for America and where terrorists are left to run free while George Bush and John McCain start wars that have nothing to do with terrorism.
My opponent once said he wouldn't employ such shameful campaign tactics. Of course, there are a lot of things — tax cuts, Wall St. regulations — and many other issues where my opponent has changed his mind to help himself win this election.
It's clear that many Americans are hurting due to the disastrous policies of George Bush, who my opponent supports 90% of the time. I want to talk about where we go from here. How do we rekindle the American Dream? how do we ensure fairness and honesty in our economy? How do we secure the futures of our children and grandchildren? If a 60s radical is what keeps you up at night, John McCain is your man. He doesn't want to talk about the economy because he has no plan.
Q: What are the three things you would do to turn around the economy?
A: One demand corporate responsibility, not only from the CEO, but his senior staff and from the board. I'm not talking about just excessive pay and golden parachutes. We need to revise our laws so that those who betray the public and stockholders' trust will find themselves in court, defending themselves against charges of corruption and fiduciary irresponsibility.
Two, we will level the playing field, so that work is valued as much as capital. The American worker is the most productive in the world, and we work longer hours than most others in industrialized countries. Yet our standard of living is declining. The average American worker is working longer hours for less take home pay than ever before. That's in part because of laws, regulations and rules that make it easier for the well-off to take a greater share of the American workers' productivity and turn it into more money for themselves and less for the rest of us.
Three, we must invest in the kinds of things that help all of us and keep American jobs here. We need to build and repair our roads and bridges. We need to upgrade our electrical grid so that our entire country can be served by the fastest and most reliable electricity and information services. We need to invest in alternative energies that keep jobs here and reduce our dependence on not just foreign oil, but oil in general. Our planet is dying from our use of fossil fuels. We must reverse that. And with a commitment to build our infrastructure and invest in new energy we can put many unemployed Americans back to work. Drill, baby, drill does nothing to help us today and by all indications would have negligible impact.
So the first three things I would do to revitalize the economy are: corporate responsibility and transparency. A level playing field, and investment in our roads and electrical system and in alternative energies. Those are the things I would focus on first.
John Kennedy challenged us to send a man to the moon. Many thought it was a pipe dream. But Americans came through. Freeing ourselves of oil and other fuels that harm our planet and ensuring that we change corporate socialism back in to good old American capitalism are goals we can easily meet if we work together.
Q. Why do you think getting out of Iraq is good for America?
A. One, we harmed ourselves and our reputation by going into Iraq. To many, including those in countries that have been our allies, instead of being the shining light on the hill, we are the arrogant "strike first and ask questions later" world bully.
Two, it is diverting resources from the military actions we need to take — like ridding the Taliban from Afghanistan and capturing Al Qaeda leaders along its borders.
Three, the war is draining our economy and preventing us from investing in programs that improve our standard of living.
Four, the debt the war is piling on our children and grandchildren is unconscionable. We have suffered through eight years, where John McCain has been complicit, of deficit spending — not to improve our lives but to fight a war the overwhelming majority of Americans now know we didn't need to wage.
Five, the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide have the same ideals and values we do. The radical Islamists are rejected by mainstream Muslims. We need to build our relations with the moderate Muslim world and partner with them to overthrow the terrorists. That's much harder to do when you are simultaneously destroying the infrastructure of their country. You can't win hearts and minds with bombs.
Finally, I hope Barack Obama has developed a sense of humor, preferably a sarcastic one, by tonight's debate. It's a tall order. But Ronald Reagan used it brilliantly; Obama — and indeed many progressives — also need to realize that unfair charges can often be dismissed with humor and that it's much better than being red-faced all the time with moral outrage.