As Wednesday’s presidential debate approached, the political junkies were gearing up for a shoot-out. Much attention was paid to the political horse race. Much debate commentary was about technique: Was President Barack Obama crisp? Did Mitt Romney use the zingers he has reportedly practiced? Did he get under the president’s skin?

This is all cute but irrelevant. The debate should focus on the future. And it should pay attention to stark realities that have largely gone unmentioned in the campaigns.

† The candidates need to be asked what they plan to do to put people back to work and how they plan to create an economy that works for working people. Romney argues that austerity — harsh cuts in spending — is what is needed. But Europe has given us a case study about what happens when austerity is applied to a weak economy: rising misery, spreading poverty and growing despair. Why would we want to repeat that here?

† Obama put forth a bold jobs program last fall, but congressional Republicans blocked most of it. Yet at the Democratic Convention, he and former President Bill Clinton seemed to focus on deficit reduction along the lines of the recommendations put forth by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which argued that spending cuts and tax increases should wait until the recovery takes hold. Do the two candidates agree that the focus should be on jobs and recovery, not on deficit reduction and austerity?

† The housing collapse has devastated home­owners across the country. Millions have lost their homes. Millions more are “under water,” carrying mortgages worth more than the value of their property. Romney supported bailing out the banks, not the homeowners and the creditors, not the debtors. Does he still believe that? What steps would he take to help homeowners recover and boost the economy? The Obama administration’s various programs haven’t been at the scale needed. Is the president satisfied with the policies in place? Would either candidate support requiring big banks to allow underwater homeowners to refinance their mortgages?

† Gun violence continues to terrorize America. The ban on the sale of assault weapons — which have no other purpose than the slaughter of humans — expired under George W. Bush. Neither candidate has said much of anything about reviving the ban or about gun control in general. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has argued that thinking current laws are adequate is “just preposterous.” Do the two candidates agree? Do they support a revival of the assault weapons ban? Would they support any changes to our gun-control laws?

† Poverty is spreading. Since the recession, the richest 1 percent has captured a staggering 93 percent of the rewards of economic growth. We’ve heard a lot about the middle class but very little about the poor. Romney’s and Obama’s budget plans call for cutting domestic spending, a category that includes support for infant nutrition, food stamps, poor schools, Medicaid, housing support, home heating for the elderly and more. What is their plan to counter crippling poverty from Appalachia to our cities?

Coverage of presidential debates often highlights who had the best one-liner or delivered the best shot. That’s presumably why Romney is practicing zingers. But can’t we have one debate where the focus is on who has the best plan, not the best pun? Wit is great, but it is vision that the country needs.


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