Asking How

Guest: Jehmu Greene, President, Rock The Vote I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the debate was the way its as-yet-undecided audience of voters made themselves, and their issues, heard. They weren’t timid, apathetic, or wishy-washy. They were concerned, committed, and intelligent. I think the debate served to remind us that the undecided populace in this election aren’t necessarily “few,” and that their interests and their votes certainly can’t be discounted.

Rich has a strong point in calling for the candidates’ heartfelt visions instead of the well-worn talking points at which we’re starting to roll our eyes. But they must be careful to be specific as well. If both candidates spent the debates proclaiming their hearts’ desires, we’d probably end up hearing the same speech twice: a stronger, more free America, both at home and internationally, an efficient and reasonable withdrawal of troops from a stabilized Iraq, clean air, affordable healthcare, cures for cancer, etc. It’s not the dreams that set these candidates apart, it’s the methods they use to pursue them.

Which makes me grateful for the diversity and directness of that night’s town-hall audience and their questions. In the ways that “undecided” voters can most effectively (read: most openly) phrase them, each question helped illuminate the candidates’ visions of what they consider to be strength, freedom, ethical soundness, and how to achieve these ideals. Some of the issues raised were refreshingly specific (abortion, embryonic stem-cell research), others were helpfully geared toward pulling the grand schemes of these campaigns into focus. The very first question, for example, asked Kerry to explain whether he considered himself wishy-washy, allowing him to clearly address the one character attack the Bush administration seems to think will convince Americans that Kerry is unfit for the presidency.

One key moment was Charles Gibson repeatedly pushing the candidates to explain how they intend to cut the deficit in half: “I have heard you both say… that you're going to cut the deficit by a half in four years. But I didn't hear one thing in the last three and a half minutes that would indicate how either one of you do that.” Granted, what followed was the standard tax-cut debate, but you have to give Gibson credit for asking “how?,” trying to investigate the steps to accomplishing the dream.

Another highlight came from a question regarding the draft: “Mr. President, since we continue to police the world, how do you intend to maintain our military presence without reinstituting a draft?” Kerry did a nice job of acknowledging the problem, citing current military officials who agree that we are short on troops, and promising to work multilaterally to build alliances that will add much-needed manpower. The practicality of this plan, of course, remains to be seen. Bush briefly discussed moving troops around and equipping them with high-tech equipment before telling America, “Now, forget all this talk about a draft. We're not going to have a draft so long as I am the president.” This kind of statement undermines people’s desire for a political discussion. Rock the Vote will continue to respect and inform the public’s demand for information on this crucial issue.

Unfortunately, it appears that the candidates are so tied to their talking points that they aren’t appreciating the nuances of the questions, which results in an inevitable disconnect between the candidates and their would-be constituencies. In the next three weeks, expect to see voters, especially the young and the undecided voters, push the candidates to explain the “how?” The man with the most detailed and straightforward answers to back up his vision will win the presidency.