The rehearsed looks and lines are being honed even as we kibitz about what to expect in next week's inaugural presidential debate. Tweedledull and Tweedledumb will be practicing their punches on the “hot-button” issues of the campaign right up until the cameras roll. We'll hear plenty about prescription drugs and Medicare because focus groups have told the respective campaigns they are pressing problems in America, maybe the pressing problem. Good luck trying to figure out the comprehensive benefits in the plans proffered.
Social Security reform will of course be a biggie on the debate dais as both pandering candidates try to reassure seniors not to worry about retirement as they tinker around the pension periphery with savings and eligibility.
Education will no doubt figure prominently in the attack and counter attacks between Messrs. Bush and Gore. Both men and their wives and their veeps and their wives seem to be in a school somewhere every week stressing academic reform and accountability as their No. 1 priority - before all other No. 1 priorities.
A relative latecomer to the presidential campaign has been the controversy over domestic energy policy. It's a tricky area in which to maneuver because neither camp has really developed any such far-reaching policy. But the two sides still have fun throwing brickbats at each other while the veep-in-waiting to be president pushes the envelope by tapping the nation's oil stores to appear more consumer compassionate than Mr. Big Oil.
It's enough to make even the spinmeisters dizzy. The rank embellisher and the subliminable stumbler really are the evil of two lessers, as a Washington Post writer mused.
Look for the debaters to outdo themselves in shamelessly playing the character card as they wrestle over who is the most moral of them all. If you can't cut the hypocrisy in the air with a knife by then, wait until campaign finance reform comes up. The topic is neither man's strong suit, but aspersions will surely be cast to portray one campaign's obscene war chest as more defenseless than the other's.
Because each presidential candidate has now seized the mantra of the middle class with catchy themes like people over the powerful and real plans for real people, they will sound like two sides of the same record in the debates. Garbled in the me-too mix will be various adaptations of government of, for, and by the people. Nuances will be nearly undetectable.
Certainly military preparedness will monopolize part of the debates as both self-serving veterans carefully craft responses that reflect admiration for Americans serving in the armed forces and concern about the readiness of U.S. troops and weaponry to keep pace with peacekeeping missions that over-extend the military.
At that point in the televised debates I will lean closer to the tube in hopes of hearing certain follow-up questions asked of the men who would lead the last remaining super power.
But chances are few of the pointed queries that strike my curiosity involving U.S. military intervention in foreign affairs will be raised. Foreign policy in general and deployment of American troops in particular are not burning issues on the campaign trail and can't compete with the more popular campaign flavor or bumble of the day.
Yet for what it's worth, Bosnia makes my top 10 list of questions for the next president. How he views America's military predicament in the godforsaken Balkans will tell me how he intends to lead as the next commander-in-chief.
As much of the Bosnia mess happened on the Clinton-Gore watch, it's only fair Mr. Gore be held accountable for the decisions his administration made. American lives are still being risked on a mission that was initially sold to the American public as a one-year entanglement to keep tenuous peace in the area. Five years and billions of dollars later we're still there doing God knows what for God knows how much longer.
On to the reccurring nightmare in Kosovo. Ever since NATO planes bombed that Serbian province and surrounding territory back to the Ice Age to halt horrific tales of ethnic cleansing, the local victors have turned the tables by tormenting the vanquished in spite of patrolling foreign peacekeepers. And, as of this writing, the Serbian strongman who defied NATO to make war, not peace, over Kosovo still waves a defiant fist at the West. Futility of purpose hangs over our militarily entrenchment in the region like a dark cloud.
Before the debates have been concluded and the presidential campaigns are in the final throes of flinging mud and promising a chicken in every pot, Americans have a right to know when American troops are coming home from the Balkans. The candidate who hopes to become 43rd president should give a clear date for U.S. troop withdrawal from Bosnia and Kosovo or explain why he can't. Better yet, explain what Al Gore or George W. Bush would do as president to prevent future Bosnias or Kosovos from becoming the albatrosses they are around the necks of the American people.
No, I don't expect a full-fledged debate on the issue of U.S. military involvement in losing foreign battles. Unless a campaign focus group tells them differently, the presidential candidates will deep-six the Balkans dilemma altogether. But every American has a stake in knowing what criteria the next president will use to guide his decisions to deploy further U.S. troops overseas.
In other words, to what end will American service men and women be asked to put their lives on the line abroad and to what kind of compelling national interests will those duties be welded before an exit strategy is even considered?
The matter is worth a debate but odds are it won't get one.