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November 17, 2007

Answer the Question!

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

There's a growing meme that Wolf Blitzer's Russert-lite performance as debate moderator was a bit too over the top. Perhaps, but journalists adopt this hectoring pose for a reason: good politicians are very skilled at evading direct questions. It's natural to respond to the standard dodge-reframe-recite-talking-points mantra by at least repeating the original question and hoping to pin the candidate down for an answer. Blitzer tried this at a previous debate, and I thought it worked quite well; it made it very obvious when candidates had failed to answer the question, and it gave them another opportunity to respond directly.

The root cause of the subpar debate experience, then, is not that Blitzer pressed candidates (though I think pressing more than twice becomes overkill); it's that he had really crappy questions, particularly the drivers' license exchange which has very little to do with the overall question of what the U.S. ought to do about the increased immigration. The format is at its worst when journalists select all their questions on the basis of whether they will put the candidate on the wrong side of public opinion or how much they will embarrass them with tangential transparency/appearance-of-impropriety issues that are very small in scope.

So in light of Kevin Drum's suggestion, let's try these for debate rules:

  • No time limits for specific questions. Let the candidates manage their own time. Candidates who have used less time should get more questions. This gets difficult when there are too many candidates. Which gets me to my next point ...
  • No more cattle call debates. How can anyone make informed judgements off of ten minutes of camera time? In the three months of campaigning prior to the first primaries, there's enough time for six debates; if you have four candidates per debate, everyone gets three appearances. This would allow top tier candidates a chance to go one-on-one; it gives lower tier candidates a better chance to vault there way up the heap; and it also allows for more back-and-forth within the debate.
  • Let the moderator to press for an answer. This will make it clear when candidates are being non-responsive bloviators.
  • Select questions from randomly selected citizens, with some editorial filter applied. This should cut down on stories relating to campaign gossip, since question reviewers will see very few questions relating to inside-the-beltway-only controversies. You'll need to ensure that candidates still get tough questions, but they will at least be tough questions that are on the minds of everyday people. There are enough debates that networks will have a chance to experiment with different filters to see  which one strikes the right balance between asking questions the public wants answered and not giving candidates too many "beachballs".

—Signed, not Ezra Klein

November 17, 2007 | Permalink


1) Cattle call debates: the way to reduce these is to hold a couple of caucuses and primaries much earlier in the process than we're used to. If Iowa had been in June of this year, and NH in September, the debate organizers would have had demonstrable reason to kick out the vanity candidates from subsequent debates. Which would then give the real contenders more time. With which to answer:

2) Filtered questions from random citizens: I'm with you all the way on this.

But there's one solution that the candidates themselves should utilize already:

3) If a moderator asks a nitpicky question, the candidate should ask him/her why that's important, when there's serious stuff like X, Y, and Z that they haven't talked about yet.

The candidates already have the power to keep the moderators honest. It would be, y'know, Presidential of them to use it judiciously: to insist that the questions be about stuff that matters.

That's my two cents, anyway.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist | Nov 17, 2007 6:18:51 AM

Select questions from randomly selected citizens, with some editorial filter applied.

The "editorial filter" is what ensures gossipy, stupid questions that reflect DC's trivial obsessions and dysfunctional environment. If the "editorial filter" hadn't been applied at the last debate so assiduously, there would have been a question about Yucca Mountain instead of a sexist piece of shit question about "diamonds or pearls" which insulted both Hillary and the questioner.

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 17, 2007 8:27:58 AM

I'm not going to sign on to the "it wsn't Blitzer, it was the questions" approach too much - Blitzer, to me, is all but inexplicable as CNN's eminence grise; indeed, few of the people in those positions - Russert, Matthews, Hume of anyone at Fox, I guess - really impress me as great questioners or especially insightful reporters. As with many jobs, I think the things thes folks did well - finding stories and getting them out - in their early careers offer no suggestion that they're the best folks to host conversation programs or lead debates. And actually, come to think of it, the people i would trust most - Lehrer and Ifill - have the sort of ability to shape questions and probe further that come from managing round table discussions with different sides on a regular basis. As much as we scratch our heads at why Fox dominates CNN these days, I never forget that sitting in prime news hour time is... Wolf Blitzer, easily the least interesting news host ever. Why they keep him there mystifies me; and why that makes him the most "senior anchor" to host things like debates really only follows, and it's all just mind-boggling.

So the thing is, I think the "cattle call" debates are not necessarily the problem; well managed, with better questions and greater attempt to get all voices included (and by extension, longer), I think they're qorkable and shouldn't be tossed just because we want an easier to manage group that chalenges us less - I need to know that my party includes Kucinich and Gravel, who talk the way I think, and even folks like Biden and Dodd, who think about issues I don't necessarily know about. To say we'd be best served by early on excluding our way down to Edwards, Clinton and Obama - especially when they have settled on safe positions that barely differ from one another - seems awfully, awfully airless. The problem, I'm convinced is with "the media" and with the notion that, for each of these networks, the "Tiffany" aspect of doing something classy like organizing a debate overwhelms good sense, like finding people best suited to asking the questions, rather than the people whose professional reps hang on the "prestige" of hosting these things. All of which, I think, is a good case for an outside, more neutral, debate organizing group, whose focus is on putting on the best debates, in a variety of formats with people best skilled to handle them. More of what we've had this year, I think, is just to hit or miss to be useful.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 17, 2007 8:32:37 AM

and here's why "Select questions from randomly selected citizens, with some editorial filter applied...." will never, ever happen:

"... reviewers will see very few questions relating to inside-the-beltway-only controversies."

Posted by: frank | Nov 17, 2007 10:26:24 AM

Equal time would be the first step. The fact that you have first tier vs "other" candidates doesn't mean that all shouldn't be heard. What makes a candidate first teir? Media exposure. Allowing the media to choose our candidites before a single vote is cast seems undemocratic. A simple solution would be to alot each canditate an equal amount of time. When they speak, their timer turns on. Once they're out of minutes, their mic is cut off.
Also, two hours isn't nearly enough time to get into any sort of actual substance, even if there were fewer. The length shouldn't be artificially constrained to a TV stations convenience. I see no reason why, if any of these people are to be the new leader of our country, they shouldn't be able to manage a full 8 hours. And I don't see why, as those electing them, we shouldn't be able to pay attention.
As far as the "cattle call" being a problem, I'd agree logistically, the more in a debate, the harder to run, but I'd disagree that a fewer number of options is a good thing.
The simplist way to reform the debates is to not have them anymore. Not on television, anyway. Even in this election cycle, we are seeing an incredible amount of internet presence, and it will only grow through this election cycle. There need not be a large number of formal debates, with everyone present that's running. An online debate between candidates, both in text and video form would be far more informative. It would allow policies and positions to be explained in more detail, and allow for a more direct rebuttal of other's claims. Rather than taking questions from a moderator, they can shoose their own questions to answer, whether from other candidates or from voters. A final televised formal debate, between all candidates a day or so before the election would be all that was really needed, if even that. Put it on C-span, and let it run until the polls close.
There really is no reason to allow the media to dictate the terms of how we learn about and make decisions on our future leaders anymore. Widen the field. There's plenty of room in the democratic process for more than 7 or 8 candidates.

Posted by: chefmudge | Nov 17, 2007 10:31:52 AM

It's frankly unrealistic in our modern age to say that we're not going to televise debates. We may all have issues with the way television distorts words and images, but it is what we use to communicate, and not using it on a key matter like our elections is just not going to happen. We can do debates better, and we can televise them. I think the poor quality of our current debates - and the overall poisonous nature of the political scene just now - shouldn't lead us to baby with the bathwater type plans. We can fix the debates without giving up on format and presentational form completely. We should at least try before we throw up our hands, and we certainly haven't done much trying up to now. I would point out that some of the debates have worked better than others - the YouTube debate was better than people expected, Fox has acquitted itself more than CNN, and even the Sunday morning Stephanopolous debate on ABC was better, I think, than people admit (and it shows that some of the best work is simply happening out of sight of most people). We can't expect all viewers to want or need inundation with massive amounts of data - we can, I think, have a successful format of careful questions, thoughtful answers, and further information available to people who look for it. Excessive data no one looks at does nothing to inform our electorate. Television can, and we can use television for it. And we should.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 17, 2007 10:42:30 AM

You seem to be under the impression that what you want (meaningful, wonky answers to important questions) is what the media wants to give you. They want short soundbite answers to gossipy questions so the pundits can pontificate about them on talk shows for days.

They don't want deep answers about things like health care, because they're complicated issues and difficult to discuss. What they want is to be able to talk about Hillary's cleavage and whether she's "playing the gender card."

Posted by: Narc | Nov 17, 2007 10:50:30 AM

"The "editorial filter" is what ensures gossipy, stupid questions that reflect DC's trivial obsessions and dysfunctional environment."

Except that they didn't ask enough audience members to ask questions. If you have 2000 people present questions, you'd see maybe six gossip questions, and as the girl from UNLV pointed out, the gossip question wasn't even her first choice.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Nov 17, 2007 11:29:37 AM


My point is that since the press has shown that what they want is stupid and gossipy, they'll just make sure that whatever they allow is stupid and gossipy. If there's only 6 questions that fit into their twisted idea of what "matters," then those 6 questions will all be asked. And if that's not enough nonsense for them, they'll either ignore the other questions or get people from the audience to ask dumb questions that the network wrote.

These people want the election to be about cleavage, haircuts and whether Romney's Mormon underwear gets in the way of his enormous schlong, which may or may not be as big as Rudy's enormous schlong.

The American people have been completely out of step with what they've been seeing in the press for several years now. Obviously the press doesn't care and will continue to spew bullshit. The problem is that there simply isn't anywhere for the people to go, since every network, every paper, every magazine is devoted to analyzing Hillary's boobs - except blogs, which is why they hate us so much.

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 17, 2007 12:09:50 PM

Yes, but would you traitorous Democrats abandon American security for some "human rights" in a foreign country?

Wouldja??? Wouldja??? ANSWER TEH KWESCHIN!!!

Posted by: El Cid | Nov 17, 2007 12:43:17 PM

If you want real debates, press for this: petitiononline.com/debateit

Not supporting such a format is a good sign that you're a party member.

Posted by: TLB | Nov 17, 2007 12:58:08 PM

All this nonsense could have been avoided had they picked Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff, even Gwen et. al. from Newshour.

Posted by: bob h | Nov 17, 2007 4:12:58 PM

All this nonsense could have been avoided had they picked Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff, even Gwen et. al. from Newshour.

Posted by: bob h | Nov 17, 2007 4:13:09 PM

All this nonsense could have been avoided had they picked Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff, even Gwen et. al. from Newshour.

Nah. Last time around the debates Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer moderated sucked too.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Nov 18, 2007 1:24:41 AM

FWIW, I think Ray Suarez is better than Jim, Gwen et al.

Posted by: Lewis Carroll | Nov 18, 2007 11:56:38 AM

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