Several years ago, I heard an audio segment from one of the presidential television debates between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Historians and media pundits constantly remind us how the images of the two men affected public opinion, and that Kennedy got a big boost because of his good looks and confident personality.
But how many Americans these days can name any major issues from the 1960 campaign? The clip I heard focused on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait. Both men emphasized the need to defend the islands from any takeover attempt by the communist Chinese mainland.
After the Kennedy-Nixon contest, Quemoy and Matsu drifted out of the political lexicon. It would be interesting to look back through the media archives from 1960 and find out how many times either candidate mentioned the word "Vietnam."
This all helps explain why I'm only mildly interested in the dust-up between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over the pros and cons of having the next president meet with various controversial heads of state.
Musing about hypothetical scenarios can generate useful discussions about serious issues. But there's also a risk of overanalyzing a subject that may end up having no lasting significance once the campaign is finished.
Instead of asking candidates to speculate about which path into the future is best, I think more insight can be gained by having them discuss where America has already been. If I could address the contenders from each party, my question would be: What are the best and worst foreign policy decisions the United States has made since World War II and how did you reach your conclusions?
It would also be interesting to reverse the process. Imagine a town-hall meeting where candidates could say, "Joe Jones in the third row doesn't like my position on national health insurance. Joe, explain why you think I'm wrong and then tell me if there's anything I can say that might change your mind."
Would you be able to handle that challenge? Do you have a system for informing yourself about complex national issues such as farm subsidies, free trade, alternative energy sources, and immigration reform?
These questions aren't just for adults to ponder, either. Millions of teenagers entering high school this fall will be eligible to vote in 2012. What will be shaping their opinions during the next few years? How many parents want to be involved in that process and how many couldn't care less?
In my household, we encouraged the "ask anything and we'll try to find an answer" approach to discussions about life in modern America. Anyone who uses this system must be prepared for moments when the child decides his or her opinion is correct and the parent's is wrong. Don't get annoyed. Remember that a healthy society needs opposing viewpoints.
And by all means resist the urge to cut off the discussion by blurting out snide hypothetical questions like, "If you're so smart, why don't you run for president?" That may sound like a good put-down at the dinner table. But in the long run, it may turn out to be a really great idea.
Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.