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Editorial: Let’s talk turkey, take a pass on zingers

A worker sets up stage Magness ArenDaniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports Wellness site Wednesday's presidential debate campus University Denver

A worker sets up the stage in the Magness Arena at the Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports and Wellness, site of Wednesday's presidential debate, on the campus of the University of Denver, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:16AM

A wish for Wednesday’s presidential debate: Go easy on the zingers and the mugging.

Deft one-liners and the right countenance matter, sure, but past presidential debates reveal just how often the small theatrics can obscure larger truths. One candidate ends up looking like a winner even when the other guy is really on to something.

John F. Kennedy was widely considered to be the winner of the first 1960 debate — his relaxed demeanor easily bested Richard Nixon’s haggard five o’clock shadow. But for some who listened on radio only, Nixon seemed to have won.

In the 1980 debate, Ronald Reagan’s folksy “There you go again” retort to Jimmy Carter helped assure voters that Reagan wasn’t a right-wing radical. But Reagan’s brush-off did little to explain his earlier opposition to Medicare.

And in the first 2000 debate, Al Gore’s condescending sighs after misstatements by George W. Bush hurt the Democrat. But only as time wore on and animosity toward Gore grew. The night of the debate, viewers tended to give Gore the win on substance.

Appearance and grace under fire matter, as they should. An effective president is more than a policy wonk. But matters of substance should come first.

With that in mind, here is the same question for each candidate, but on different subjects, that we’d like to hear answered in depth during Wednesday’s debate:

What would you cut, Mr. Romney?

For months, this page and many others have repeatedly called on Mitt Romney to spell out his plans for dealing with the government’s staggering debt. His strategy has been to talk in generalities, hoping that President Barack Obama will be felled by the weak economy and not necessarily by the strength of Romney’s vision.

With Obama in the lead and the election only five weeks away, that no longer cuts it. The next president must act to avert the “fiscal cliff” the country is facing in January, when automatic and devastating spending cuts and tax increases will kick in if no alternative is found.

Thus far, Romney’s tax overhaul plan has fallen woefully short on detail and honest projections. Wednesday’s debate is an excellent place for Romney to explain how he intends to make up for revenue lost by cutting taxes for the wealthy.

What would you cut, Mr. President?

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was designed to slow the budget-busting growth of health care costs, but not by nearly enough. Even with Obamacare, national health care spending is projected to continue to grow faster than the economy, accounting for about 40 percent of all federal spending by 2037.

How to slow that runaway train? A popular Republican solution, pushed most notably by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is to transform Medicare into a voucher system in which recipients would be given a flat amount of money to buy health care on the open market. Gone would be the current system of the government paying for every doctor’s appointment, MRI and hospital stay.

Obama opposes Medicare vouchers but has yet to adequately spell out exactly what cuts and efficiencies he would push instead. Would he still, for example, increase the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, as he proposed last fall? That idea went nowhere with his Democratic base.

Any specific proposal by Obama to cut health care spending further is sure to offend some interest group, such as the hospitals, the drugmakers, the doctors, the insurance companies or the patients.

Obama went relatively easy on all these groups to pass Obamacare, but he can do so no longer.

Time to talk turkey, gentlemen.

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