I haven't been doing it as much lately, but there was a time when I would regularly go on radio and television to debate conservatives on one issue or another. One of the simple tactics I used was to ask my opposing number to get specific about whatever sweeping claim they were making. Simply saying, "Can you tell us what exactly you're talking about?" was often enough to win the argument, because as often as not there really wasn't anything in particular.
It's not just a debating trick, though. It's something reporters ought to be doing more. And I don't mean in a pop-quiz, "Can you name the president of Uruguay" way. Because it seems like a lot of the discussion in this election revolves around vague grievances people have that are either based on completely invented ideas, or really come down to "I don't like that Democrats are in charge." When candidates echo those claims, they have an obligation to tell us exactly what they're talking about.
For instance, Republicans regularly say that government is invading all of our lives to an unprecedented degree. The appropriate question a reporter should ask when hearing this is, "Can you tell us exactly what the Obama administration has done that has invaded your life, such that you have less personal freedom than you did two years ago?" I for one would like to know. If they say "Health care!" the follow-up should be, "What about health-care reform is an infringement of your personal freedom?" When Sharron Angle (or anyone else) alleges that Sharia not only has already taken over Dearborn, Michigan, but threatens to take over the rest of America, she ought to be asked, "Can you tell us what provisions of Islamic law are in effect in Dearborn?" Christine O'Donnell got stumped on a question like this at a debate yesterday when she was asked what Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with, which presumably came because she had given the standard Republican line about the tyranny of liberal judicial activists.
This isn't just a plea for campaigns to be more focused on policy. Every candidate makes choices about what he or she believes the important issues are, and focuses the campaign on those issues. They regularly get away with making vague yet wildly overstated claims about them, and they ought to tell voters just what they're talking about.
-- Paul Waldman