Politics & Government

Round 3: What are you likely to hear in tonight's debate?

Sen. John McCain speaks to a crowd at a town hall meeting in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.
Sen. John McCain speaks to a crowd at a town hall meeting in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and John McCain get their last chance Wednesday night to debate before tens of millions of voters about how they differ over remedies for the nation's most vexing issues: the economy, health care and the future of Medicare and Social Security.

But few experts expect much new insight from their 90-minute debate at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

Not only does the format discourage talk about details, but also on the stump, on their Web sites and in their ads, the campaigns have shown little desire to get too precise.

"I've been very disappointed in both of them for the lack of vision," said William Shughart, professor of economics at the University of Mississippi.

He and others don't expect much depth.

"The debate format doesn't lend itself to detail or complexity," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., is the site of the third and final debate. McCain and Obama will answer questions from moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS.

The debate is to focus on domestic issues. It will include two-minute answers and then five minutes of discussion.

Schieffer says he'll press for specifics, but historians say he's got a tough job, because candidates tend to be vague, even in tough times.

"Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 campaign was famously known for promising bold, persistent experimentation," without being too specific, said John Geer, editor of the Journal of Politics.

The recent model for substantive campaigning was probably 1992, when candidates spent months debating the economy and offered books laying out their proposed programs.

Since then the Internet and 24-hour news cycles have become pervasive, and "candidates respond to the media," said David Carney, a Republican consultant who was White House political director under George H. W. Bush.

"In 1992 everyone had a book," he said. "This year everyone has a blog."

The candidates' Web sites offer some policy details.

Obama, for instance, proposes a stimulus plan that would impose a three-month moratorium on home foreclosures, create infrastructure jobs and help families pay winter heating bills.

McCain Tuesday countered with his own quick fix. Among his ideas: guaranteeing all savings for six months, eliminating taxes on jobless benefits and lowering tax rates on certain capital gains and on some withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k) plans.

Over the longer term, Obama would let President Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire on Jan. 1, 2011, for individuals earning more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000. And he has proposed increasing Social Security taxes by 2 to 4 percentage points on those earning more than $250,000.

However, he rarely describes these plans as tax increases, instead promoting a tax cut for those earning less than $250,000. Nor does he say precisely where he'll get the estimated $2.95 trillion the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says will be needed over 10 years to pay for the tax cuts — although he insists that he will shrink budget deficits.

McCain, too, refrains from spelling out where he will get the $4.17 trillion needed to pay for making his tax cuts permanent.

The candidates are vague on other major problems facing the nation.

Medicare is projected for insolvency by 2019 and Social Security is seen as beginning to spend more than it collects beginning in 2017, but Obama and McCain offer no comprehensive plans.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said campaigns "are about making the country feel comfortable," and talking about curbing Medicare and Social Security costs is hardly feel-good politics.

As a result, "Social Security and Medicare are the poster children for failing to address a problem," she said.

The problem extends to how to best manage the nation's health care system.

McCain talks about his tax credit — $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families — but experts find the specifics sketchy at best.

The money would go to the insurer, but unused parts could go into an individual's health savings account. It also would require consumers to pay tax on the value of an employer's health benefits.

That's a tax increase, Obama charges.

Leonard Burman, director of Washington's Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group, has found that eligible households would save an average of $1,241 next year. That kind of detail has not been not been widely reported or discussed during debates — though it could've been.

Geer thought a seminal moment in the debates came last week when audience member Lindsey Trella, a breast-cancer survivor who lost her job and saw her insurance premiums jump, asked Obama if health care "should be treated as a commodity."

Obama gave a lengthy answer, saying that she and others could buy the same kind of insurance as federal employees _without explaining what that means — then criticized McCain's ideas. McCain promoted his tax-credit plan, saying it would make it easier for people to shop for more affordable coverage.

"Both candidates went into their standard stump speeches," Geer said. "The woman wanted a sense of where they stood on health care. Bill Clinton would have been hugging her and making her understand his program, but both Obama and McCain missed their chance."

Chances are, Zelizer said, they probably will again on Wednesday night.

"The candidates know the whole point of these debates," he said, "is to say one or two things that can be replayed the next day."


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John McCain on the economy

US Budget Watch analysis of McCain and Obama economic positions

Candidates answer Lindsey Trella's health care question


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