WHAT TO WATCH FOR
ON THE LEFT
1. Class warfare: its revisionist history to recall the Barack Obama of 2008 as a class warrior. That Obama talked in almost equal turns about the necessity for individuals to be responsible as he did of punishing white collar Wall Streeters. But following the visibility of the Occupy movement last Fall, a funny thing happened on the way to the neoliberal forum: discussions about wealth inequality picked up steam. While most search trackers find that explicit discussion of inequality has returned to pre-Occupy levels, the Obama campaign has certainly capitalized effectively on the population's sensitivity to economic disparities effectively arguing (or demagoguing depending on your perspective) about the impact of wealth stratification on the middle class. Romney's 47% comments caught on tape at a fundraiser have been grist for the mill. Obama has to have one wealth-related haymaker prepared: look for when and how effectively he lands it.
2. Romney's entitlement: Americans tend to have little issue with wealth. Indeed, polling numbers reveal that many Americans still remain skeptical of heavy taxation and regulation of the wealthy because they project forward an idea of themselves as one day belonging to the upper class. Americans do, however, have a negative reaction to the combination of an affect of entitlement and excessive wealth. Any defensiveness regarding wealth on Romney's part has to come off as a calm and reasoned response that highlights his giving to charity and the necessity of providing appropriate incentives to those capable of exercising good financial and economic judgment.
3. Shooting the gap: Obama has a tricky task in that he has to admit that the economy is still in a bad place, but also that he has earned the trust of the people to continue to try and fix it. Obama of course cannot come right out and say what he is probably thinking: "If I had looked at the American people in 2008 and had said that we had little hope of returning to a halyconic economic era during my presidency, I would probably not be elected." Of course an alternate theory, pushed in a recent spate of articles, is that Obama and his advisors simply did not grasp the depth of the economic crisis. Obama would do well to have America remember its anxieties during autumn 2008; a return to this feeling makes it feasible to IMAGINE that Obama shared the depth of fear about the economy of most Americans, while allowing them to conveniently overlook how his administration may not have responded aggressively enough to the crisis.
On the Right
1. Any Libya questions: while this debate is ostensibly about domestic policy, this will not stop Mitt Romney from bringing up the assassination of Amb. Chris Stevens in Benghazi. If the debate runs off the domestic rails and into foreign policy territory, its a dangerous spot for Obama for two reasons. A) When an American representative is murdered, simply crying "Wrong Forum!" will not do as an appropriate response, and B) emerging facts indicate that the embassy attack might have been predictable. While we are nowhere near "Bin Laden to Strike U.S." territory, the administration's spin on how security was being handled at the embassy has yet to coalesce into any kind of cohesive narrative, leaving some meaningful questions about the administration's handling of the incident and its aftermath.
2. Diminishment of the office of the presidency: the challenger has inherent difficulties when attacking the incumbent president in a debate. Specifically, the challenger must prove capable of undermining their opponent without being seen as diminishing the dignity of the office of the presidency itself. Many common conservative complaints about the president fail to generate an audience outside of the negative feedback loop of conservative political commentary because when it comes to the presidency audiences reason deductively from the status of the office rather than inductively from the character of the person without it: i.e. the American people wouldn't elect a communist president, the presidency is a part of the nation, etc. Romney should return to his prior campaign theme that the president is a well meaning but overmatched and underskilled manager. Such arguments can diminish Obama the man without diminishing the office of the presidency, to which Americans have strong symbolic and mental fealty.
3. Connecting with the middle class: Romney certainly has policy arguments that he thinks will capture the hearts and minds of middle class voters. In the abstract, the issue is not connecting the policies themselves: calls for lower tax cuts and smaller government often prove persuasive, and the more complicated policy canards related to how long term budget shortfalls might necessitate raising taxes on the middle class are (sadly) probably going to be too far out to be discussed in detail in the debate. But as far as personas go, Romney has yet to connect his persona with an audience. It's not that people don't respect competent managers, its that they aren't all that fond of bosses, and Romney's discourse of necessity and management comes perilously close to triggering an American imagination suffused with skepticism towards one's professional overlords.
What Not To Watch For
1. Gaffes: these are entertaining and the cause of much chortling, but short of Ford-in-76 style errors, its difficult to imagine a gaffe really swinging things. Moreover, their immediate mega-circulation through social networks is cause for insanity and fury. So please, don't watch for them.
2. Talk about the poor: because it won't happen. Both parties talk longingly of the middle class while penning them the most effervescent of love letters, at the expense of the poor. Don't get your hopes up.
3. Mentions of the Daily Caller "bombshell" video last night: what a dud.