The spectacles we persist in dignifying as presidential "debates" -- two-minute regurgitations of rehearsed responses -- often subtract from the nation's understanding. But beginning this Wednesday, these less-than-Lincoln-Douglas episodes might be edifying if the candidates can be inveigled into plowing fresh ground.
* * *CONCERNING THE JUDICIARY
Although the average age of the Supreme Court justices (66) is less than that of the Rolling Stones (68), three justices will be in their 80s before the next presidential term ends, so the next president probably can solidify today's conservative majority or create a liberal majority.
For Mitt Romney: Many conservatives advocate "judicial restraint." They denounce "judicial activism" and define it as not properly deferring to decisions by government's majoritarian branches. Other conservatives praise "judicial engagement" and define it as actively defending liberty against overbearing majorities. Do you favor "restraint" or "engagement"? Do you reject the Kelo decision, in which the Supreme Court deferred to governments' desire to seize private property and give it to wealthier private interests who would pay higher taxes?
For Barack Obama: You deplore the court's Citizens United decision. What is your constitutional basis for rejecting the decision's principle that Americans do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together in corporate entities (mostly nonprofit advocacy corporations such as the Sierra Club) to speak collectively? You say you would "seriously consider" amending the First Amendment to empower Congress to regulate political speech. Explain why you choose to make the Bill of Rights less protective.
For Romney: The Republican platform endorses using "whatever legislative method is most feasible" to ban flag desecration. Can you distinguish this from the antiblasphemy laws in some Islamic countries? Should we criminalize expressive acts that offend?
* * *CONCERNING FOREIGN POLICY
For both: On Oct. 7, we begin the 12th year of the war in Afghanistan and 51 recent NATO fatalities have been at the hands of our supposed Afghan allies, causing U.S. commanders to indefinitely suspend many joint operations. Why are we staying there 27 more months?
For Romney: You envision "countervailing duties" to punish China for manipulating the value of its currency. Do the "quantitative easings" by Ben Bernanke's Federal Reserve, which vastly expanded the money supply, constitute currency manipulation? Would duties increasing the prices Americans pay for Chinese imports violate your vow to not raise taxes?
For Obama: Your campaign boasts about increasing the number of unfair-trade charges against China. How would Americans' welfare be enhanced by raising the prices they pay for consumer goods and production materials from China?
For both: You are correct that China subsidizes politically connected businesses. Does not our Export-Import Bank do this?
For Obama: Are GM and Chrysler subsidized? Are they politically connected businesses?
* * *CONCERNING DOMESTIC POLICY
For Obama: Your opponent proposes cutting income tax rates 20 percent and implies paying for this partly by means testing some deductions (e.g., mortgage interest payments and charitable giving). Do you oppose his plan for making the income tax more progressive?
For Romney: You say "redistribution" has "never been a characteristic of America." You're kidding, right? Is not redistribution one purpose of progressive taxation? Is not most of what government does -- from agriculture subsidies to subsidized student loans to entitlements -- the redistribution of wealth from one cohort or region to another?
For Obama: You recently said changing Washington "from the outside" is "how some of our biggest accomplishments like health care got done -- mobilizing the American people." You're kidding, right? A majority of the American people never supported passage of Obamacare. Did you not secure passage by deals with Big Pharma and other inside Washington players?
For both: Do you agree that a financial institution that is too big to fail is too big to exist? If not, why not? The biggest banks emerged from the Great Recession bigger. At the end of 2011, the five biggest (JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs) held more than $8.5 trillion in assets, which is 56 percent of the 2011 GDP. Why should they not be broken up?
For Obama: Your deep blue Illinois -- like another essentially one-party Democratic state, California -- is buckling under the weight of its portion of the estimated $2.5 trillion in unfunded state pension obligations. Will you promise to oppose attempts to force the taxpayers to bail out badly governed states?
For both: Do you assume the Almighty is not paying attention whenever you say "I approve this message"?