When the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case, political pundits united in predicting that the resulting cascade of campaign ads would be the driving dynamic of the 2012 race.
But instead, it's a commercial-free miniseries, the presidential debates, that has mattered most. Mitt Romney's widely acknowledged win in the first debate undermined the Obama campaign's strategy of presenting Romney as an unacceptable alternative, and the race has tightened ever since.
But it's not only the debaters who have become must-see TV -- moderators are in the news as well. A media meme developed on their performances, seemingly graded on a "Goldilocks curve": Too soft (Jim Lehrer), too hard (Candy Crowley) and just right (Martha Raddatz).
In particular, Crowley is in the cross hairs because of her real-time fact check of President Obama's account of his morphing explanation of the terrorist attack in Libya. The issue is sure to come up again during Monday's final debate, which will focus on foreign policy.
"The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism" -- a topic similar to this month's Minnesota International Center's Great Decisions dialogue on Middle East Realignment -- is one of the announced debate issues. So are "America's role in the world," "Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan," "Red lines -- Israel and Iran," and "The rise of China and tomorrow's world."
Bob Schieffer, Monday's moderator, should not let his journalistic instincts be tamed because of the Crowley controversy. The style-over-substance theatrics of the previous debates obscured Obama's and Romney's artful dodging on domestic-policy questions. On foreign policy, specifics should be demanded -- even if the public's pulse is barely beating awaiting answers.
"There is a [foreign policy] debate at the elite level," said Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "But when I look at polling data, foreign policy doesn't have a heartbeat."
Maybe so. But hearts could soon race, or break, if America takes part in yet another Mideast war, such as in Iran.
"I don't think there is a clear recognition among the public as to how far elites are in talking about a military strike on Iran as an option," said Jacobs.
Foreign policy hasn't always been on the back burner. The Cold War was a hot topic, as was another euphemistic "long, twilight struggle," the "global war on terror." But pocketbook issues shortchanged attention to this more modern worry, too.
"The first few elections after 9/11, there was a remarkable, and not terribly surprising, interest in national security and foreign policy. But a lot of that interest has faded. The worry about being attacked has been overcome by the fear of losing a job or paying bills or worries about sending a kid to college," Jacobs said.
And yet, even if America is turning inward instead of international, globalism's impact on the U.S. economy means Schieffer should prod the president and his challenger with challenging questions. And he should ask for answers with precise language instead of the gauzy geopolitical generalities each candidate prefers.
For instance, is the proposed diplomatic "pivot" toward East Asia wise? And what does "getting tough on China" really mean? Further, just how much international influence do we have where exhilarating, exasperating Arab Spring awakenings bring freedom -- and chaos?
And which other potential crises -- like the Russian "reset" and nuclear disarmament, Mexico, North Korea, the euro zone, our debt, climate change, food security, to name just a few -- should be discussed?
Most important, what are the specific conditions that would delay -- or accelerate -- 2014 timetables on withdrawal from Afghanistan? And how different are the candidates' color palettes when considering "red lines" regarding Iran and Israel?
And Schieffer shouldn't mince words when it comes to another important distinction: The use of torture in the post-9/11 era.
Curt Goering, executive director of the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture, wrote a letter to Schieffer, saying in part that, "If you anticipate a discussion about interrogations in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, CVT respectfully requests that any line of questioning not include references to 'enhanced interrogation techniques' or other misnomers for torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
Goering's right. Not just with his debate request, but in the broader debate about our nation debasing itself with tactics we routinely, and rightly, call out repressive regimes for.
By using precise language on all the topics, Schieffer can make Monday's debate an antidote to the ongoing onslaught of campaign ads. Schieffer should force a foreign-policy debate that's fair, specific and, perhaps even fittingly, diplomatic. He should risk the wrath his colleagues faced, and truly, boldly, moderate.
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