|The one notable advantage for Romney of the town hall format is that, while there will be back and forth between the candidates, the focus is on the questioners in the audience. This will give President Obama less opportunity to flail away repeating his "47% this" or "Bain Capital that" - i.e. the things all the liberal pundits thought he should have said in the first debate. (Come to think of it, it might be better to let Obama flail...).
However, the danger that Romney faces is that the town hall debate format, in the hands of the shameless American media, has evolved over time (not exclusively but to a large degree) into a kind of grievance-fest, a parade of heartbreaking personal stories, each of which illustrates some failure of the government to provide something that someone thinks they should be getting. Questioners are chosen not so much because they have expertise on a particular issue, but because they embody that issue, because they "put a face" on that issue. The result is that town hall debates come to resemble episodes of Queen for a Day (the 2012 election version) - with each contestant, er, questioner, attempting to outdo the last in a pathetic display of misery incurred through no fault of their own - a misery which indicts the callous, inhuman politician who so heartlessly supports policy X.
You can see why the format favors liberals.
Furthermore, the liberal media - in this case the Gallup organization which will choose the questioners - sees no point in having ordinary citizens ask sophisticated, abstract questions about issues better left to "experts;" things like: why are we taxed so much? or, aren't we spending ourselves into oblivion?
So, in this election season, what are grievances going to be? And what are the faces which Governor Romney will confront going to look like? Herewith are my three suggestions (it is long so you might just want to skim it and check down at the end for the conclusion):
1. Questioner: This question is for Governor Romney. Governor, my name is Maria Hernandez and I am an honors student in my senior year at Glendale High School. Next year, I am fortunate to be attending the State University of New York at Albany. I am especially fortunate because my parents, who brought me here from Mexico when I was three years old and are among the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States, could not have afforded to pay for my college tuition had the great state of New York not passed a law giving in-state tuition rates to children of undocumented workers. Governor, why are you opposed to in-state tuition for children of undocumented workers and why, for that matter, do you oppose the DREAM Act?
Governor Romney: Maria, as an honors student I am sure you know that America was built by immigrants. Throughout our history, wave after wave of immigrants came to these shores - often sailing right past the Statue of Liberty here in New York harbor - with their dreams of a better life for their families, often fleeing from tyranny they'd left behind. And America prospered because we attracted all of these courageous, industrious souls.
Maria, I believe in immigration for America. But here's the point: I believe in legal immigration. [turn to camera]. And the illegal aliens who are in our country now ignored our laws and jumped to the front of the line when they came here. And in addition, the employers who knowingly employed them, who continue to knowingly employ them, have unfairly tried to get ahead of their competitors the same way.
So far, President Obama's major success in stemming the tide of incoming illegal aliens has come by the way he cleverly kept the U.S. unemployment rate at 8% for 43 months while the Mexican unemployment rate has been 5%. Other than that, the President's Administration has offered no solutions other than talk about comprehensive immigration reform, which Americans recognize as amnesty and which Americans reject.
My plan is turn off the magnet that attracts people here in the first place, by implementing E-Verify in the workplace and, yes I'm sorry Maria, by not offering benefits for people who are here illegally. Once that is achieved and people are back on sides we can begin to increase the levels of legal immigration. But the back of the line begins outside the country.
2. Questioner: Governor Romney, my name is Robert Caswell and I am a carpenter in nearby Hempstead. Governor, last Spring my longtime partner and I were united in marriage in a ceremony sanctioned by the State of New York which, as you know, recognizes same-sex marriage. You have said that you believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Governor Romney, how does my marriage to my one true love harm you?
Governor Romney: Robert, you are absolutely right that I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman and in that I differ completely from President Obama who as you know supports same-sex marriage. And the reason is that most people, most parents, I think if you asked them, would say that they don't want their children to grow up to be gay if they can avoid it. And they think that teaching their children the traditional sexual roles of a man and a woman fosters that. And part of that teaching comes through our culture and its values.
Now some people for one reason or another turn out to be gay - maybe there is a predisposition at birth, maybe the path gets chosen during adolescence, there are many theories about that. And I think it's important that we don't vilify those people and here in America we respect their right to live their lives as they choose. But that is where the difference comes between accepting someone's rights to do what they want in their own bedrooms on the one hand, and approving of their choice on the other hand.
I believe, and here I am also informed by my faith because my church teaches me, that marriage is between one man and one woman. I believe that same-sex marriage in effect forces the citizens not just to accept certain life choices but to approve of them.
3. Questioner: This question is for Governor Romney. Governor, my name is Percy Hopkins and I am a retired engineer, father of four and grandfather of eleven beautiful grandkids. Governor, I am worried about the state of the planet that we are going to pass down to my grandkids. You have criticized the President for his attempts to kick-start industries that rely less on fossil fuels and more on green energy like wind and solar. But Governor you have not said what you would do to address the problems of our environment. My question is do you believe in climate change and do you think that human-produced carbon dioxide is causing it?
Governor Romney: Percy, thank you for that question. First, I did indeed criticize President Obama for choosing not just winners and losers as I say but choosing mostly losers, especially in alternative energy, like Solyndra. Believe me Percy, sinking half a billion dollars into a failed enterprise bankrolled by one of President Obama's major campaign donors did not help anyone's grandkids.
Now as for climate change the answer is yes, I believe the climate is changing. The climate has been changing since the Earth was formed. Do humans produce carbon dioxide, they definitely do. Does that carbon dioxide affect the climate, it absolutely does. But the questions are how much does human-produced CO2 affect the climate and what should we do about it? And here the answers are not as obvious as the green lobbyists at places like Solyndra would want you to believe.
Look, let me say this. Even if the IPCC (that's the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) median predictions are correct, and those predictions have been getting steadily less dire, the sea level will rise about eighteen inches in the next century. Now, unlike President Obama, I'm not going to waste my time commanding the oceans to subside by eighteen inches. But I will tell you that the sea level rose about eighteen inches from 1860 to the present. There are lots of adjectives that people might use to describe the last 150 years, but unusually "wet" isn't near the top of the list.
Global climate does require study. But it is better to do it with a level head - because we are stewards of this Earth for our children and grandchildren just like you say Percy.
Conclusion: And there you have it. So what's the point? The point is that the structure of this debate, the town hall style and the confrontation with citizens whom the media doesn't deign to attribute any real thinking to, means that the debate will be on non-economics and mostly non-foreign policy issues. That means mostly social issues but also things like environmentalism.
The main strategy that Governor Romney must adhere to is don't take the bait! Don't get caught either sympathizing with or patronizing questioners regarding their grievances. Remember, what the questioners say on their ride home doesn't matter, it's what millions of Americans say while watching in their homes. And, as I say, your views on illegal aliens, gay marriage and climate change are the popular ones.
Stick to your principals. Prepare for sob stories. You'll be fine.