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The Zero-Calorie Debates

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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.

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