After the seemingly endless preliminaries, now comes the main event Thursday night.
Will many people watch the "debates," which resemble joint news conferences? The rules are so strict that the candidates don't engage each other. One-third of homes with television sets watched the first 2000 presidential debate between Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. The first debate traditionally draws the most viewers, possibly including those precious "undecideds," so here is some unsolicited advice and suggested questions for both candidates.
For Sen. Kerry: You have the most to prove. You are a rich, elitist Massachusetts liberal. That is a difficult image to overcome, so you've got to at least sound as if you have convictions and make the case for why your plans are better than the president's policies.
In most of your pronouncements, you never talk specifics about victory in Iraq or offer a credible plan for achieving it. You speak of bringing the troops home, which must encourage America's enemies. You recently accused the president of planning a post-November surprise of calling up more reservists (and your wife predicts Osama bin Laden will be captured before the election). But you have repeatedly faulted the administration for not sending enough troops. Why would the president be wrong in sending more troops -- assuming he will -- when you have criticized him for not doing what you now say he plans to do? You are vulnerable to the charge of being a flip-flopper.
Your weakest link is the war. You have repeatedly said your plan for fighting terrorism is to drop more U.N. resolutions on our enemies and bring in more "allies." The trouble is the U.N. resolutions aren't worth the paper they're written on unless they are backed up with action. No foreign leader has publicly stated that your election would change his position from non-cooperation to cooperation with the United States. They have said just the opposite. (Have you talked to some who say otherwise?)
Domestically, you have criticized the president for his tax cuts, the deficit and national debt, but you propose a $653 billion government health care plan and an additional $207 billion in education spending when the record amounts now being spent have not improved education achievement. How will you reduce the deficit and debt with these proposals, unless you plan to substantially raise taxes?
Your ultimate problem, as reflected in the polls, is that most people don't know what you believe, if anything. Even Don Imus was mystified when you told him your "position" on Iraq. He said he couldn't understand what you were talking about -- and he supports your election.
You must project credibility and conviction and present specific ideas with workable plans. Voters must be convinced you will perform better than the president.
For President Bush: Don't appear cocky. Be serious, but look for an opportunity to ridicule Kerry when a statement or position invites it ("that's not what you have said on three previous occasions, Senator. A president must be right the first time. He rarely gets a second chance"). That has the ring of authority and experience and can cast Kerry as indecisive and "unfit for command."
You should outline how you intend to win this war, in Iraq specifically and against terrorism generally. Must we continue to see our Marines and soldiers murdered by car bombs and snipers? What will you do about insurgents coming from and supported by Iran? And please talk about our own "insurgency" problem: the huge number of illegal immigrants pouring into this country. Time magazine estimates an additional 3 million illegals will have made it to the United States by the end of this year, including an unknown number from countries that wish to destroy us. Will you say if you intend to stop, or substantially reduce, the flow?
You fulfilled your promise to cut taxes, but what about the spending, which on your watch has soared to record heights? Is there to be no end to spending increases; no end to waste, fraud and abuse in government programs; no end to big government? If there is to be an end to big government, please tell us which programs and agencies you plan to eliminate?
Viewers (and radio listeners) want to hear some honest answers. For the sake of the country, may the man who is better for America win.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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