Time to make presidential candidates squirm 

The candidates are getting testy. This is good news.

Gov. Rick Perry says he’s offended at the suggestion he could be “bought” (his word, not ours) for only $5,000 in return for subjecting all Texas girls to a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cancer. (The amount in question was actually much, much more, but that’s a story for a different day.)

Mitt Romney loses his temper at a woman questioning the high cost of health care in Massachusetts, the state he governed and where he championed mandated health care insurance. He told she could take her vote and, well, give it to somebody else.

President Barack Obama loses his temper at the Republicans in Congress in every campaign speech he gives, which is just about daily.

Michele Bachmann just loses it almost every time she says something purporting to be factual, the latest misstatement being a fulmination against Perry’s vaccine program as causing mental retardation.

It is no news we are in trouble. No job growth, our economy in tatters, poverty spreading, infrastructure falling apart, high school SAT scores declining, two unfinished wars, housing foreclosures soaring, and our politicians unable to be civil, let alone get anything done. Somehow, rioting in Athens, Greece, influences jobs in Columbus, Ohio. Even the Post Office is broke.

Short of screaming in frustration, what can we do?

In short: Get even by holding politicians accountable, making them blow their cool.

Without being impolite, we have to demand candidates be specific about how they would promote economic growth, what they would do about Social Security, exactly where they get their campaign donations, how to bring our soldiers home.

After peripheral candidates are winnowed out, debates in depth should be held. There should be a debate on exactly how candidates would “create jobs” and why they believe their plans would work. There should be a debate on the future of Social Security and Medicare. There should be a debate on tax reform, another on how to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan and another on federal regulations.

In the general election campaign, we should demand intense specificity. We should roar with rage when frivolous issues take center stage, pushing aside the real challenges. By November of 2012, we should know the two remaining candidates inside and out.

Every election is important. This time, more people than usual truly think this one is vital because there are two competing philosophies in America and 2012 will likely determine which direction we take — for years.

Big issues. Big decisions. Let’s make ’em squirm.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

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Ann McFeatters

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