I predict that nothing that happens tonight at the first debate is likely fundamentally to change the status quo: a tight election with President Obama likely to win.
But one issue could be a fundamental game-changer — or bring this country together on one paramount moral issue if both candidates agree — a real purple moment.
"Yes or no — will you join me tonight, on the record, and say yes or no — not maybe, not if, and or but — will you join me and endorse the bipartisan recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission — endorsing substantial spending cuts, raising revenues through closing tax loopholes, reducing corporate tax rates and undertaking major reform to save Social Security and Medicare from insolvency and bankrupting us all?"
If the other candidate says no, or equivocates in any way, and the candidate who has asked the question says, "Well, I say yes — I say it is immoral to equivocate about $16 trillion that our children and grandchildren have to pay off; I say the time to pay our bills and pay down our debt is now. I say yes — let's pass Simpson-Bowles," then I say the candidate who has committed to support Simpson-Bowles wins the election. I say this because I believe that the sliver of remaining undecideds and soft, still persuadable supporters of both candidates will respond positively and decisively — and swing to that candidate who is willing to stand up to his base and do the right thing ... and perhaps even say, "To hell with politics."
That candidate will win in November ... if he does that.
But I am pretty confident, I am very, very sad to say, that neither candidate will do this — and the moderators won't force them to.
The Obama campaign response to date has been to say, "Well, the president tried that approach and the Republicans said no." Or they equivocate (as in the president's acceptance speech at the convention), supporting just the "principles" of S-B, not its specific across-the-board recommendations.
Of course, there are two follow-up questions the moderator can ask Obama to that response, which he has stated many times.
First, yes or no — will you specifically endorse all the Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendations — your own deficit-reduction commission — as did your own liberal home-state senator, Illinois’s Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch rewrites playbook for confirmation hearings Gorsuch: I'm 'sorry' for ruling against autistic student MORE, who voted for all those recommendations?
And second, even though the Republicans also refused to endorse S-B, why didn't you lead — regardless of their response? Isn't that what presidents are supposed to do? You led on healthcare when all the Republicans said no. Why not on S-B?
And to Romney, the question must be asked: Why not support Simpson-Bowles? The conservative anti-tax Republicans on the commission, Sens. Tom CoburnTom CoburnDon't be fooled: Carper and Norton don't fight for DC Coburn: Trump's tweets aren't presidential The road ahead for America’s highways MORE (Okla.) and Mike CrapoMike CrapoSenators war over Wall Street during hearing for Trump's SEC pick Overnight Finance: Biz groups endorse Trump's Labor pick | New CBO score coming before health bill vote | Lawmakers push back on public broadcasting cuts Senate Banking panel seeks proposals for economic growth MORE (Idaho), supported the specific recommendations. Why won't you? You talk about closing tax loopholes but won't tell us specifically which ones. So — yes or no — will you endorse the specific recommendations of Simpson-Bowles tonight?
Romney, I predict, will wander around describing why tax cuts, reducing revenues, will produce more revenue to pay down the debt. No one but Arthur Laffer takes that seriously anymore. Even Reagan supporters, who remember that Reagan recognized the truth of Vice President Bush's prior characterization of the concept that you can cut revenue to increase revenue as "voodoo economics." And two years after his election as president in 1982, as we know, President Reagan sponsored and passed the greatest tax increase in U.S. history.
Will the moderators challenge Romney with that fact? Will Romney be forced to say yes or no to supporting all the Simpson-Bowles recommendations?
Will Barack ObamaBarack ObamaAIPAC must reach out to President Trump Tea Party Express backs Trump’s ObamaCare bill Washington Post: Investigate Nunes for leaks MORE and Mitt Romney seize the moment tonight and stand up together to their respective bases on the left and the right? And together — for once — embrace a purple position that brings our country together, at least on the moral issue of paying down our $16 trillion debt by endorsing Simpson-Bowles?
Don't hold your breath.
Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel (1996-98) and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is a partner with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in Purple Nation Solutions, a public affairs-strategic communications company. He is the author of the forthcoming book Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life, to be published by Simon & Schuster. He can be followed on Twitter @LannyDavis.