Five Things Progressives Should Watch For In 2012's First Presidential Debate

Election '16

There is only one big political story in America today and it is tonight’s first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Just about everywhere you look you’ll will find lists of questions that voters or pundits want answered, advice for both sides, analyses of which voters need to be convinced—and predictions of who’ll win.

It’s probably safe to say that neither candidate will be trying to win over progressives, as most liberals—at least in swing states—are seen as voting for Obama. But there are likely to be themes and issues that go right to the heart of what most progressives see as the role of government, who and what is deserving of federal attention, how public priorities get paid for, and whether the candidates understand what’s really going on in America.

What follows is a survey of questions and concerns raised by a range of opinion-shaping websites. This is political backseat driving. Nobody knows whether Obama or Romney will stray from their public personas, say something spontaneous or controversial, or disappoint their base—even as both sides will predictably declare that they won.

So let’s go through some suggested questions, advice and wishful thinking. The debate begins at 9 PM Eastern standard time, focuses on domestic issues, and consists of six 15-minute segments that start with a single question. The second debate splits the agenda between domestic and foreign policy. The third debate is all on foreign policy.

1. Let’s Hear Some Specifics.

There is no doubt that each candidate’s record or statements on the federal budget, taxes, entitlements like Medicare and Obamacare will be parsed, as the Washington Post notes in debate questions that they suggest get hurled at each side. But the real question is whether viewers will start hearing some specifics, especially from Romney.

The Post suggests the moderator push Romney for being evasive about how he’d reduce the federal deficit—by demanding he say what programs he’d cut, what tax loopholes he’d end or keep, who he’d spare from the GOP’s budget knife. They suggest that the moderator push Obama for not doing enough to revive the economy, create jobs, cut federal spending, etc. On the other side of the country, The Los Angeles Times’ first question would be how will the next president get anything done if a divided Congress refuses to compromise on the most important issues facing the nation?

2. Let’s Address Economic Anxieties

A very grounded counterpoint to these political inside-ball questions is from polling done by, of all places, WalMart, who has surveyed women with kids under 18 who shop at the megastore. Their website,, says this important swing voter block is trying to tune out political ads while waiting to hear what the candidates say on the economy, education and healthcare. This is intriguing because virtually every poll says that Obama’s biggest strength is conveying that he feels the anxiety generated by a weak economy, while Romney doesn’t telegraph that sense on middle-class concerns.

These women say the economy is not getting better—which hurts Obama. But Romney’s suggestions for school vouchers (that would hurt public schools), the Republican Party’s Platform call to bring banks back into the college loan business, and Romney’s pledge to undo Obamacare is not exactly comforting either.

Jennifer Granholm, the former Democratic Michigan governor and now Current TV host suggests a line of questions that might help these WalMart moms decide, and also would go a long way toward answering progressive’s questions about what Romney would do. Her questions go beyond the details to reveal whether each man, particularly Romney, can be trusted.

3. Prove That You Can Be Trusted

Granholm would start by asking Romney if he would ever raise taxes, noting that in last spring’s GOP primaries Romney said that he wouldn’t even accept a deal where $10 in spending cuts were coupled by a $1 increase in tax revenue. She would ask if he would endorse Rep. Todd Akin for U.S. Senate, whose absurdly said that a women can use her body to prevent a pregnancy if raped. She would ask Romney if he still believes that human activity contributes to global climate change, as he once wrote.

Granholm also suggests that Obama be asked how he can get anything meaningful done with a deadlocked Republican House and Democratic Senate, what are his top priorities after his stalled Jobs Act legislation, and what steps would he take to reform the political process, from countering the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision to pushing the Senate to change its filibuster rules.

4. What Is The Role of Government?

Many pundits, epitomized by the Washington Post, want the first debate to pay closer attention to the prose of governing—the nuts and bolts, not the poetry of the campaign trail where broader pronouncements about political beliefs are recited in speeches.

But these political beliefs and philosophical issues surrounding what Romney and Obama believe is the role of government, what’s needed and what’s not in America today, what steps will ease economic anxieties, and who is and isn’t a ‘victim’ in today’s America—all topics that are not just likely to come up, but tell voters where each man would go when facing ongoing and future crises.

5. Tell Us More About Your Values

The New Yorker’s writers also have very good questions that push at these values and beliefs, starting with the suggestion that Romney and Obama discuss how religion would affect their judgements, and extending to how they would each respond to an ethically challenging phone call from their biggest donor seeking a favor.

There are, of course, endless questions that every interest group would like to see asked. But how each candidate deals with the mix of details, each other’s replies, and conveys an understanding and confidence that is believeable on a visceral level will matter the most. That’s a conclusion that individual voters will draw, even though there will be a hurricane of spin that will start at 10:30 PM eastern, when the first debate ends.

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