Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press. Monday's CNN/WMUR-TV/New Hampshire Union Leader Republican debate will air live at 8 p.m. ET on CNN. The debate can be seen on CNN TV, CNN.com and mobile devices. And participate with your questions on the live blog at cnn.com/ticker.
Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- On Monday night, most of the Republicans who have declared their candidacy for president will square off in New Hampshire for a debate on CNN.
Although many potential candidates still loom in the background, and most Americans are not yet paying attention to the campaign, there is an opportunity for the candidates to start answering basic questions about their vision of the GOP.
So much of the past two years has been about President Obama, and what conservatives dislike about the commander in chief, that much less time has been spent thinking and talking about a positive vision for what Republicans stand for.
The campaign of 2012 will help Americans to find out. In the debate, the moderators should push the candidates to address five basic questions that have emerged in recent weeks as Republicans have started to talk more about their own party than about Obama.
Question 1: What is your plan for the revitalizing the economy?
This remains the big unknown. The economy has been Obama's greatest weakness. The anger on Main Street about economic insecurity is palpable. Even with the signs of recovery that we have seen, the unemployment rate is unacceptably high, and too many Americans are struggling to protect their economic future.
Thus far, the Republicans have done much more attacking than proposing. The major response from the GOP has been to offer proposals cutting government services and cutting taxes, though there is minimal evidence from economists that these steps would truly cure the nation's economic malaise. The proposals also contradict policies that Republicans have themselves promoted, such as subsidies for the oil industry and Wall Street. If Republicans want to seriously challenge the president in 2012, they will need a more compelling blueprint for the future.
Question 2: How far are you willing to cut government services?
When Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan put forth his blueprint to reduce the size of government, a backlash ensued, culminating in the victory of a Democrat in one of the most conservative districts in New York state. Polls showed that there was significant unhappiness with Ryan's proposal to fundamentally change Medicare. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker encountered a similar response when he went after public unions and government services.
Without question, Democrats will use this issue as a way to attack the GOP and to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Rather than attempting to thread the needle and remain elusive about what they would do -- which would only give Democrats an opportunity to fill in the blanks for voters -- the candidates in New Hampshire should use Ryan's proposal as a starting point to explain more clearly what kinds of specific cuts they would pursue if elected president. Rather than having an abstract philosophical debate about government, Republicans should be concrete about where they would hope to save money.
Question 3: How would you eliminate the deficit without raising taxes?
Republicans have been steadfast in claiming that it is possible to eliminate the nation's debt and deficit without raising taxes. Even though many Republicans in the past, including President Ronald Reagan, have acknowledged that the only way to make substantive inroads into the nation's obligations is by dealing with both sides of the fiscal ledger, in 2011 most Republicans have stood firm: Read their lips, they won't raise taxes. When some conservatives, such as Sen. Tom Coburn, have suggested that they might be open to the idea of raising revenue, they have immediately come under attack from the right.
Yet bringing the nation's fiscal house in order is simply not realistic without raising more revenue. Even with the kind of draconian cuts proposed by Ryan, most analysts agree, the size of the deficit would remain rather high over the long term. The tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, which were extended under Obama, have continued to erode the fiscal strength of the government. The candidates must answer how exactly they would hope to live up to their plans of fiscal conservatism without asking Americans to sacrifice more of their dollars.
Question 4: What would you do about Afghanistan and the rest of the war on terrorism in the post-bin Laden era?
Until recently, Republicans have not been as critical of Obama on foreign policy as they have on domestic issues. Although there were initially some sharp jabs by former Vice President Dick Cheney, over time attacks of this nature diminished.
Given the problems with the economy and the controversy over health care, Republicans chose to keep their focus on these easier targets. Moreover, Republicans found that they were unexpectedly in agreement with the president on a number of key issues. In general, Obama has left most of Bush's war on terrorism in place and increased the number of troops in Afghanistan. Although there were grumblings about a slow response to the crackdown on protesters in Libya and warnings that Obama was being too tough on Israel, overall this has not been a major point of contention.
Yet so much has changed in recent months that Republican candidates owe it to voters to explain what they would do overseas to combat ongoing threats. With Osama bin Laden out of the picture, important questions about the nature of stateless terrorism remain, including what the structure of al Qaeda's leadership is and how to combat it. There is also growing controversy over the expense of the war in Afghanistan and the question of troop withdrawals, as well as criticism that the administration does not really have a plan for what it hopes to achieve there.
The revelation that Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan has generated immense criticism from the left and the right about this key ally and our future relationship. These issues, as well as what the proper response should be to the popular uprisings in Arab countries, offer many questions that could be addressed at Monday night's debate.
Question 5: Where do you stand on same-sex marriage and gay rights?
Republicans are not all on the same page about how to deal with some of the social issues that have been important in past elections. During recent years, many Republicans have tried to sidestep these issues, fearing that the social questions only undercut support within the electorate for GOP positions on such matters such as taxation and national security. There are so many factions in the Republican Party -- fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, national security conservatives, isolationists -- that there has been a desperate desire to avoid the kinds of issues that would tear these factions apart.
The times have changed, however, especially as public opinion has shifted on questions like gay rights. Increasingly, the Republicans have found that they are out of step with where the overall electorate has moved. While the current crop of candidates will be playing to the potential voters in the GOP primaries, who tend to come from the right wing of the political spectrum, they will eventually need to make a case to the general electorate.
Many Americans, including some conservatives, no longer agree with the old party line. The debates over gay rights and gay marriage have highlighted this divide. If the Republican candidates disagree with public sentiment, they should be pressed to explain their position and to say why they think that the public has moved in what they view as the wrong direction. If the candidates want to offer new directions for the party, they should be given an opportunity to do so early in the campaign.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of questions for the candidates. There are many more that certainly will come up in the debate, some about policy and others about personality. Even though this debate comes extremely early in the campaign season, and the main goal is to see who can best handle themselves in debates, it should be used as an opportunity to better understand what the Republican Party stands for in 2011 and 2012.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.