Remaining questions

October 12, 2004

SO MUCH ATTENTION was fixed during the first two presidential debates on vague notions of winning and losing -- not to mention atmospherics and body language -- that the candidates' views often got eclipsed.

On substance, both debates were top drawer. Great questions, especially those that came Friday night from citizens in a town hall setting, and revealing answers, if not always directly responsive to what was being asked.

But as President Bush and Sen. John Kerry prepare to meet tomorrow night in their third and final encounter of the campaign, there's lots more ground we'd like to see them cover.

Particularly welcome is tomorrow night's focus on domestic issues. It's hard to deny Americans' overriding concern about terrorism and the war in Iraq, yet life here at home also poses great challenges for a president. This seems a time of painful transition on so many fronts -- the economy, health care, energy sources and the tradeoff between security and civil liberties, to name a few. Anything the candidates can share about how they plan to ease the nation through these passages would be helpful.

Some topics of interest:

The deficit: Mr. Bush has used federal spending to try to spark economic growth and job creation. But returns have been slow to come, and the annual deficit has grown to nearly a half-trillion dollars with a war still under way and further huge expenses just around the corner. Both candidates promise to cut the deficit in half, but their figures are suspect and neither has offered details of where the budget ax would fall. Mr. Bush's proposal to rely only on non-defense, non-homeland security domestic spending can't be kept. There isn't enough money in that category.

Social Security: Mr. Bush has promised to revive his plan to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their Social Security contributions to private investment accounts. Given the volatility of the market in recent years, does this make sense? How would he cover the $1 trillion transition costs for older workers now that the surplus is gone? Is there a better idea?

Medical costs: Mr. Bush wants to curb frivolous lawsuits and provide tax credits; Mr. Kerry has some broader ideas about expanding government insurance programs. But neither has talked about building more efficiency into a health care delivery system that seems on the verge of being overwhelmed by the chronic ailments of an aging population.

Energy: Gas prices of $2 a gallon look like they're here to stay -- or go higher. What are the best short-term as well as long-term ways to deal with the impact of rising fuel prices?

Privacy: Now that the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, is fading, it's time to sort out useful security measures from panicked overreaction and restore some lost liberties. How?

Healing wounds: Whichever way the election goes, nearly half the country will be sorely disappointed or even downright angry. Soothing those hard feelings might be the toughest job ahead for the winner; both candidates ought to have a strategy in place they can share.

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