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Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of bombing an interview. Every question had been answered according to plan, but near the end I was confronted by the inevitable "Where do you see yourself in 20 years?" I blanked, hit an intellectual iceberg and my ship went down fast. Later that evening, as I sat watching the presidential debate in utter disbelief of my lack of vision, I began to empathize with the candidates. As painful as the debate was to watch, it was comforting to see those two squirming about, trying to answer questions about the future they envisioned for the country. In a sense, the presidential debates are a longer, more public interview where the candidates are asked how they see America progressing over the next 20 years. The debate gave me the oddest feeling of deja v—. A couple days later, while avoiding additional research into the abyss that is my thesis, the familiar face of Ronald Reagan on C-SPAN revealed why. "There you go again..." he intoned with his famous radio delivery, questioning Jimmy Carter's representation of his stance on Medicare during the 1980 presidential debate. Reagan's line, now a cliche, might well have been applied to both candidates in last week's debate. The first question in 1980 was on each candidate's willingness to intervene militarily in foreign affairs. Reagan responded that we needed a strong military in order to "control the events and try to intercept before they become a crisis" -- a not too distant departure from George W. Bush's argument that we need a stronger military "to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place." Like Reagan, Bush used this theory as a lead-in for a spiel about the sickly state of our armed forces, emphatically calling for a "rebuild of our military power." The next question in 1980, directed at President Carter, asked about the dangers of the recent OPEC oil shock. Carter called for additional conservation and noted that the country had increased its domestic energy production, boasting that "more coal [had been mined] this year than ever before in American history." Surprisingly, although we no longer face the spiraling inflation of the '70s, concerns about oil supply still worked their way into the discussion. Both Gore and Bush answered a similar question by suggesting we increase domestic production and invest in clean coal technology -- surprising given that over the last two decades, we have chosen to build less-fuel-efficient cars, import more foreign oil and cut domestic exploration while hoping, in Carter's words, to "to replace OPEC oil with American coal as a basic energy source." Carter's statement that the Social Security trust needed to be separated from the federal government budget, an identical, though less animated, version of Gore's promise -- repeated nine times -- to put the program in an "iron-clad lockbox." Conversely, Reagan argued for a study on the options available for Social Security and emphasized the need to determine its long-term viability, suggesting something like Bush's proposal to privatize a portion of Social Security by allowing individuals to invest their contributions in the stock market. Amazingly, in 1980, Carter suggested in an off-topic answer to a question about Medicare that "we have an opportunity to move toward national health insurance, with an emphasis on the prevention of disease; an emphasis on out-patient care, not in-patient care; an emphasis on hospital cost containment to hold down the cost of hospital care far those who are ill [and] an emphasis on catastrophic health insurance." The proposal along those lines by Ralph Nader -- this year's John Anderson -- makes Bush and Gore's prescription drug plan seem rather conservative. Reagan closed the with the memorable "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" -- a question I ask myself all the time. That line made me wonder whether we are better off today than we were 20 years ago. At the moment, as Gore invites a similar searching look at the last eight years, we are enjoying a ridiculous economic expansion and the Cold War is over. But from listening to the debates, there is nothing fundamentally different in what the candidates were saying then as compared to today. Tomorrow night's presidential debate is another opportunity to see what challenges this country still faces. From listening to the debates, it seems that while we as a country have advanced greatly, we have not progressed far enough politically to change the focus of the debates. Perhaps as a country we lack a shared vision, and perhaps we should all think of a better answer to where we see ourselves in 20 years.

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