Debating Debating

by digby

Harold Pollack, pinch hitting for Ezra, reminds me that I need to call some attention to this must read article by James Fallows about the primary debates.

Pollack focuses on the fact that the debate moderators didn't bother to ask important, fundamental questions about how government actually works:

Buried deep is a compilation prepared by Sidney Blumenthal and Daniel Freifeld for the Clinton campaign, in which they examined reporters’ questions in 15 debates. As they summarize it:


This stuff matters. Both parties are assembling platforms with many new ideas for public policies. Republicans push school vouchers and medical savings accounts. Democrats push charter schools and health reform. During the campaign, we will debate these matters at the 50,000-foot level. At some point, we must confront the elemental reality that an idea is only a good idea when it can be well-executed.

Pollack's point is well taken. But then there are so many things that weren't covered in those debates because the moderators ran them as if they were some sort of junior high school sporting event.

Fallows gets into the weeds:

By the time I’d finished watching the debates, I had a similar impression to Blumenthal and Freifeld’s, but with a different organizational scheme. Here is my list of the Five Questions That Should Never Be Asked, with illustrations and reasons why they’re wrong:

1. The will you pledge tonight question, which is always about something no responsible politician could ever flat-out promise to do. For instance, a question to Barack Obama: “Will you pledge that by January 2013, the end of your first term more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq?” Obama’s reply was the only realistic one: “It’s hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don’t know what contingency will be out there.” Hillary Clinton got the same question and gave a similar answer: “I agree with Barack. It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting. You know, we do not know, walking into the White House in January 2009, what we’re going to find.” The questioner looked as if these were witnesses evading a question. In fact, if they’d said anything different, they’d be indicating that they were too doctrinaire for the job. But that didn’t get Clinton off the hook. “Would you pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president?” she was asked at another debate. She replied, “I intend to do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb,” to which the follow-up was: “But you won’t pledge?” Then to Senator Joseph Biden: “Would you pledge to the American people that Iran would not build a nuclear bomb on your watch?” Biden’s reply: “I would pledge to keep us safe.” Taking a pledge would mean news for the show but would either handcuff the politician if elected or create a flip-flop trap later on.

2. The gotcha question, involving any change of policy. A challenge to former Senator John Edwards in a debate last September: “Well, Senator, I want to ask you this because in 2004 when you ran for president, you said we could not afford universal health care, it was not achievable, and it was not responsible. You’ve changed dramatically on this issue.” Edwards’s perfect response: “That’s true, and so has America.” Some changes are suspicious; others reflect a recognition of new facts. The gotcha questioner treats them all the same.

3. The loaded hypothetical question, which assumes factors that can’t be known. One addressed to Hillary Clinton: “If Israel concluded that Iran’s nuclear capability threatened Israel’s security, would Israel be justified in launching an attack on Iran?” She replied, “I think that’s one of those hypotheticals that —” and, over the questioner’s interrupting “It’s not a hypothetical, Senator. It’s real life,” she went on to say “that is better not addressed at this time.” She, Biden, and Obama all challenged a similar hypothetical, straight out of 24, about whether they would torture a captive suspect who knew where a ticking bomb was stashed, saying that in reality torture didn’t work and the scenario was too pat. The most famous combination of the gotcha and the hypothetical was of course the question CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked of Michael Dukakis as the very first in a debate 20 years ago: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

4. The raise your hand question, for reasons of intellectual vulgarity and personal rudeness; and

5. The lightning round, in which the candidates have 30 seconds to address a point. After aggressive questioning in one debate, the moderator said, “We’re going to take a break and come back with our lightning round — 30 seconds to answer each question.” Senator Chris Dodd shot back, “You never got to the real round.” The transcript then shows: “SENATOR CLINTON: (Chuckles.)”

I think this is correct. but I think you have to change beltway culture before the substance of the debates would change. This is the subject matter these people care about.

Fallows makes the point himself:

Here we come to an awkward fact. The questioner in all the illustrations above, starting with the favorite verse of the Bible, was Tim Russert of NBC. (I called Russert’s office in Washington on a Tuesday to request an interview about his approach to debate questions. I was told that he was in Europe at the time and I should call back the following Monday. In between came the shocking news of his death.)

The generous personality that made Russert so popular, and the encyclopedic political knowledge that made him so influential, meant that he was imitated when he set a bad example as well as a good one. His questioning mode during the debates was mostly unfortunate. In two important, back-to-back Democratic debates last fall—in Hanover, New Hampshire, in September and Philadelphia in October—nearly every question he asked was from the categories above.

The candidates fought back, even when that involved defending their political rivals. A few months earlier, in a June debate in New Hampshire sponsored by CNN, all of the candidates had pushed back harder against the less magisterial Wolf Blitzer. When Blitzer asked for a yes/no show of hands on whether “the United States should use military force to stop the genocide in Darfur,” Clinton asked for details and then refused to answer. “We’re not going to engage in these hypotheticals,” she said. “I mean, one of the jobs of a president is being very reasoned in approaching these issues. And I don’t think it’s useful to be talking in these kind of abstract, hypothetical terms.” The transcript conveys the reaction after he asked for another show of hands and Biden, Edwards, and Clinton complained at once.


George Stephanopoulos of ABC, who moderated two of the three Democratic debates held on a major network rather than on cable, told me that the reason the debates became so process-oriented was that the policy differences among the main contenders were so small. This was especially true, he said, in the much-criticized final debate of the primaries, in which he and Charles Gibson spent the first 45 minutes grilling Obama and Clinton on “electability” issues like Obama’s failure to wear an American-flag pin in his lapel, before turning to policy matters in the second half. “To the extent that they have relatively small differences over health-care policies, if either one becomes president those would all be subsumed” in negotiations with Congress, he said. “And as to whether originally they were for war in Iraq—that difference had been debated.” The only thing left to discuss and for the party to consider, according to Stephanopoulos, was “which was more electable in November—that was the heart of the issue.”

By that point, and about that debate, he was probably right. When I’d seen this final debate in real time, I’d been outraged by its harsh tone and belated attention to policy matters (including Gibson’s little lecture to the candidates on why capital-gains tax cuts always paid for themselves). When I saw its place in the series, I realized it was like a late episode of The Sopranos in which nearly everyone gets mowed down. It was violent and dehumanizing, but it was the culmination of a long process.

I recall feeling a bit disoriented at the time by the shock and outrage at the ABC debate, not because it wasn't shocking and outrageous, but because it seemed pretty typical to me. I think I watched all but one of them and I was dumbstruck each time by how horrible they were --- and Russert really was the ringleader. From the very beginning, he and Matthews set a tone that was as illuminating as a dying birthday candle.

In fact, back in February I wrote an angry post called "How do we defeat Tim Russert?" in which I said:

From tax returns to Farrakhan to footage shown by "mistake" to the endless, trivial, gotcha bullshit, this debate spectacle tonight was a classic demonstration of what people really hate about politics. It isn't actually the candidates who can at least on occasion be substantive and serious. The problem is Tim Russert and all his petty, shallow acolytes who spend their time reading Drudge, breathlessly reporting every tabloid tidbit ... in lieu of doing any real work.

These people guide the way citizens perceive politics even if the citizens don't know it. It's hard for me to see how anything can truly change until this is dealt with.

Russert's death doesn't change that. (If anything, his style will probably be venerated as the "gold standard" now that he's been martyred.) He was a product of beltway culture not the maker of it. This approach to politics will continue as long as DC journalists and columnists allow groupthink and friendships (and yes, careerist impulses) to overrule their integrity. The problem is best illustrated, perhaps, not by the debates themselves, but by the spectacle of these insiders gathering together in the studios to "analyze" them afterwards. You'd be hard pressed to find a more embarrassing group of fawning sycophants even in the crowd lining the red carpet at the Oscars.

I don't know have the answer to this problem. It's clearly due, at least in part, to the fact that success is measured by the entertainment model of ratings and advertising dollars. But perhaps it's the lure of "celebrity" and fame that is most pernicious. There's something about that which turns even good minds to mush after a while.

I do know that I believe that as basement dwelling, cheeto gobbling bloggers we have no such inducements and should be able to keep a consistent critique of these people. I continue to believe that the political media is a fundamental impediment to progressivism and one of the blogosphere's primary responsibilities is to keep the heat on these people no matter whether they are pleasing us on a certain day or whether we want to throw our keyboards at the TV. It's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it --- and if it isn't us, it will be nobody.

Fallows didn't see the debates in real time (he was in China) so he was only able to get the full flavor of what was so wrong with them after the fact, seeing them all at once. Very few people wrote about this while it was happening, even in the blogosphere, until Gibson and Stephanopoulos went over the top on Barack and his online supporters lurched into gear. I consider that our failure too (me included --- I didn't make it the kind of focus of my blogging that I should have) and I hope we've learned our lesson.

This isn't about having some people we like on TV or taking down one politician over another in a primary. The system itself is inherently antithetical to the kind of dialog we need to advance liberal politics in this country. We are at a huge disadvantage until we can figure out a way to change it.

Be sure to read dday's exceptional post below, also on the subject of the media.