No Comment — August 15, 2008, 7:10 am

The Zero-Calorie Debates

In 1988, the decisive moment in the presidential campaign may have come when CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis this question, opening one of the Bush-Dukakis debates: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” It was a classic “gotcha” question, and Dukakis treated it as an opportunity to give his views on the death penalty, handled it bloodlessly, and was widely viewed as having lost the contest.

Recently Josh Green has grabbed headlines with a look at some unseemly memoranda from the Clinton campaign, in which Hillary was offered strategic choices for engaging Barack Obama that look remarkably like the choices that John McCain now appears to have accepted. But some other documents from the recent Clinton campaign offer very astute insights into the campaign process. One quite remarkable document was prepared by Hillary’s senior advisor Sid Blumenthal and an NYU grad student working with the campaign, Dan Freifeld. It takes a look at the kind of questions that are habitually asked at presidential debates. I attach it here. (James Fallows has also discussed this memo.)

In the 2008 primary season, the debate process expanded dramatically. There were some four dozen debates involving the major presidential candidates. But did this help enrich the democratic process? Hardly. Remarkably, the problem is not the candidates or the campaigns. It is the quality of questioning that came from the carefully selected media questioners. The questions actually asked are remarkably predictable. By and large, the questioning operated to lower, not to raise, the caliber of the political debate.

As the authors noted in reviewing some 352 questions asked in 17 debates that involved Hillary Clinton in the 2008 campaign through January, not a single question was asked about the actual operation of the machinery of government. The approach that most questioners favored focused instead on two categories: “gotcha” questions designed to expose a failing or fault of a candidate or trip the candidate up, or “puff” questions designed to make a particular candidate look good. This shows a transposition of the role of the questioner. Ideally he or she should be helping the voter understand the candidates, their personalities, their abilities and their policies. But increasingly the questioners have become participants in the process and thinly cloaked rivals or advocates for candidates. This raises serious questions about the imagined disinterestedness of questioners.

But Blumenthal and Freifeld focus in on the type of question which properly should lie right at the heart of the political debate and in fact is never asked: how would a candidate deal with a specific piece of the apparatus of government which is misperforming. “Government is broke. How will you go about fixing it?” For instance:

After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was revealed as incompetent. How would you reform FEMA?

The Bush administration has pressured the intelligence community to produce certain analytical results in order to justify the Iraq War. How would you reform the intelligence process?

Or how’s this?

Internal investigations show that the Bush administration consistently politicized the Department of Justice, entrenching partisan hacks, bringing lawsuits to manipulate voting patterns and suppress minority voter turnout, prosecuting political adversaries in corrupt criminal cases. How would you deal with those who were victimized by this process?

You can count on it. This question is far too serious to be asked in a process that favors the trivial over the substantive. Our media would much rather focus in on—and indeed obsess over—a candidate’s relationship with a minister who espouses strange or unpopular ideas, whether his name is Hagee or Wright. And that impoverishes the entire political process.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Amount of laundry an average American family of four washes in a year (in tons):

1

A study of female Finnish twins found that relative preference for masculine faces is largely heritable.

It was reported that visits from Buddhist priests could be purchased through Amazon in Japan, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra began streaming performances through virtual-reality headsets.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today