At Long Last Sir -- Have You No Zingers?

A few days ago I flagged an American Prospect article by Geoffrey Nunberg for its excellent description of the ideologically conservative/operatively liberal divide. Now I want to highlight a different part:

Republicans will try to pin a big-government label on the Democrats, but the appropriate response to that is not to apologize for government, as some liberals have recently done, but rather to call the Republicans' bluff. Kerry just once might have responded to Bush's charge that he was a big-government liberal not just by denying that his health-care plan was a government takeover but by bearding Bush on his government-bashing. "Just which government programs are too big?" he might have said. "What should we do away with? Social Security? Medicare? The Food and Drug Administration? The Securities and Exchange Commission? The Environmental Protection Agency?"

This sort of thing is genuinely confusing to me. Why aren't debates filled with more lines like this? After all, it wasn't impossible to predict that Bush would tag Kerry with the "big government" label-maker, nor was it particularly hard to foresee Massachusetts pejoratively entering the discussion. Meanwhile, Kerry has weeks to prepare for all this, can call on the best writers, speakers, and political thinkers in the business, and ends up with no defining moments (save maybe "global test"). That's his own fault. According to the Newsweek election retrospective, Kerry specifically directed his debate prep team to stay away from zingers. He didn't want any, he said.

But it's not just him, their seems to be a real unwillingness to go for the throat in presidential debates. Of the famous lines in the last decades, we've got Reagan's dismissive "There you go again" and Lloyd Bentson's putdown of Dan Quayle ("You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy"), they're both schoolyard comebacks, not West Wing closers. You'd think, after months on the campaign trail, that the combatants would know they needed some sound bites rather than just a solid performance. So why don't they call up Aaron Sorkin, or indeed Geoffrey Nunberg, and commission a few? Why don't they go in for the kill?

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