Presidential candidates answer two different kinds of questions as they campaign for the nation’s first primary.
There are questions from the news media and questions from people.
Reporters - who follow the candidates from town to town, but have limited chances to actually talk with them - ask almost exclusively about the process of getting elected: What do you think of the poll that shows you up (or down) in the race? How much are you spending? What do you think about opponents’ charges your ads are attacking them, or about their ads, which are attacking you?
The candidates usually answer these questions with great detail, in the special political language they share with the media. They know that if reporters are not satisfied with the answers, the questions will be asked again, zeroing in on some crucial weakness.
The people ask about the process of governing the country if a candidate should be elected: How will you save Social Security? What will you do about Medicare or the economy or taxes or our schools or our children’s future?
The candidates answer these questions in less detail, using the generalities of their campaign themes with the language and brevity of their commercials. Thus, a stand on the flat tax may be summoned up to answer a question about the economy or the tax code. Trade restrictions can cover the answer to a question on foreign policy or more jobs.
One exception to this campaign model is Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar. He spent much of last week holding “Ask Dick Lugar” sessions at schools, town halls and community centers around the state.
At Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook, he ate lunch with students in the cafeteria, then stood at center court in the auditorium for nearly an hour while teenagers in bleachers on three sides fired questions.
Tough questions on gun control (he supports waiting periods for handgun purchases and the ban on some semi-automatic weapons), wetlands (he supports laws that allow development of such crucial areas if other wetlands are created elsewhere) and education (he wants to keep the current system of federal grants, and allow families to save more money for college by replacing the income tax with a national sales tax).
Lugar received some added attention from the national media over the weekend. But not because he suggested a new policy or had a new solution to a problem. Instead, reporters asked him why someone who is so serious about addressing issues is doing so badly in the polls.
Lugar suggested that, in part, it was their fault for focusing on the horse race aspect of politics and negative commercials. And he’s right.