It’s official. We have now reached that point that occurs in every presidential primary campaign when frontrunners wrap themselves in magnanimity to try to stay above the fray while challengers jettison all pretense of playing nice and plunge headlong into what resembles a rhetorical game of King (or Queen) of the Mountain. [IMGCAP(1)]
Wikipedia describes the object of the childhood original as a game “to stay on top of a large hill or pile or any other designated area,” (like a debate stage, maybe) as “other players attempt to knock the current King off of the pile and take their place. … Ordinarily pushing is the most common way of removing the king from the hill, but there are significantly rougher variations where punching or kicking is allowed. As such, the game is often banned from schools.”
If only we could do the same for presidential campaigns. Currently, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) sit atop their respective partisan hills. Until now, both candidates have tried to maintain a generally positive stance, saving their toughest language for their partisan opposition.
But if pushed by their fellow candidates for the nomination — and lately both have been pushed — neither has hesitated to hit back and hit hard. These two didn’t come out of the rough and tumble of New York politics without learning a few things about street fighting.
Although very different candidates with little in common on most big issues, they nevertheless have voiced a similar strategic message during the early primary phase that goes something like this: “There isn’t much difference between me and my opponents on the key issues our party cares about. It’s my unique experience and leadership skills that make me the right man/woman for the job.”
Interestingly, the other candidates, Republican and Democratic, have embraced a strategic message that is the mirror opposite of the frontrunners’. Whether it’s Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or ex-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) or ex-Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), their contrast message is roughly the same: “Hillary Clinton/Rudy Giuliani is not really one of us because their positions on important issues are out of step with our party.”
In the case of Giuliani, it is his views on some social issues that separate him from the rest of the Republican field, although the Pat Robertson endorsement last week took some of the strength out of that argument.
For Clinton, it’s her stand or, more accurately, stands on the Iraq War that have given Obama and Edwards an opening to claim that the New York Senator is not simpatico with the Democratic Party’s anti-war position.
So far, the frontrunners’ strategy has been relatively effective. National polls show Giuliani up about 14 points and Clinton up about 20 points.
But state polls show a more mixed picture, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now with the political clock ticking down, voters need more issue clarity than either the candidates or the media have given them to date.
Campaign-sponsored appearances help delineate differences between the candidates; but as we have seen, planted questions can corrupt the credibility of the process, giving the media an excuse to focus on campaign minutiae rather than the big issues that ought to be front and central at this point in the primary contest.
Here are six questions that I wish the media would ask all the candidates in the coming weeks. The country would be better off for it and so would the process. If I were asking the questions, this is what I’d want to know:
• At crucial moments in our history, presidents have created new foreign policy doctrines to clarify U.S. views, intentions and priorities for the rest of the world. Perhaps the best example is the Monroe Doctrine. What would your foreign policy doctrine look like and what would it accomplish? Be specific.
• How will you defeat the forces of radical Islam, how will you define victory for the American people and how does that strategy fit into your overall doctrine?
• To maintain economic growth, the U.S. will have to produce 6 million jobs over the next four years. What is your plan to create 6 million jobs during your first term as president?
• Given China’s and India’s focus on education to grow their technological and economic power, how will you ensure that America’s next generation will have the capabilities to sustain our innovation leadership in the world?
• Most families are facing increasing financial pressures because of rising gas prices, property taxes, and health care and educational costs. What is your plan to help all families meet those costs, maintain their quality of life and achieve their aspirations?
• Imagine it is the last day of your presidency. As you board Air Force One for the last time, your spouse turns to you and asks, “So what did you accomplish?” What would you want that answer to be?
The last thing voters need between now and Feb. 5 are more questions on UFO sightings, abortion and the campaign process, or more softballs that let candidates answer with meaningless platitudes instead of specific solutions. Voters don’t want to know what’s wrong with the other guy or George Bush. They want to know what the candidates think is right about their visions and plans for the country.
It’s up to the media to give them what they want.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.