Rhetorical Questions

Who will win the presidential debates? What does each candidate’s use of words say about how he would govern as president? Can Obama’s rhetorical skills lift him to the heights of Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan—or will his speechmaking do him in? After watching all 47 (!) of the primary season’s debates, our correspondent has the answers—and some harsh criticism for the moderators.
mccain debate
Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

I. The Carnival

The 40-plus people who served as moderators through the debate season varied widely in their assertiveness and willingness to act as if the assembled politicians were just another set of guests on a talk show. Local newspeople plus those from PBS and NPR tended to be the most respectful. Wolf Blitzer was the most intrusive and self-aggrandizing. His CNN colleague Anderson Cooper, who moderated the YouTube debates for both parties with video questions from viewers, was at the other extreme, with a nice combination of assertiveness and good-humored restraint. Along with Cooper, the other moderator who best kept control without hogging the stage was Brian Williams of NBC. Williams was in charge of the very first Democratic debate, on April 26 of last year, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Yet it was the smooth, non-histrionic Williams who put the candidates through a series of stunts.

Raise your hand if you’ve owned a gun. Raise your hand if you “believe there is such a thing as a global war on terror.” Raise your hand if you support Representative Dennis Kucinich’s plan to impeach Dick Cheney. On the merits, these were not really ideal yes/no questions—especially the most important of them, about the war on terror, in which the only things that matter are the reasoning and plans that would come after the yes or the no. But the amazing part of this process was the sheer indignity of it. All eight of these people had been public officials. Odds were that one among them would be the next president of the United States. Yet they compliantly held up their hands like grade-schoolers or contestants on Fear Factor. While candidates are subjected to almost everything during a long primary season and are used to skepticism and outright hostility from the press, serving as game-show props represented something new.

Brian Williams asked many meaty questions that night, and his bearing through that and two other debates was respectful without being cowed. Indeed, if you read the transcripts, you can find all the meat you want—about different concepts for mandates in health-care proposals, different concepts for the future in Iraq, different ways of dealing with federal budget deficits. Whenever they could, candidates steered the discussion back to policies and real-world problems, attacking their opponents mainly when goaded to do so by questioners. The candidates were anxious about staying ahead of their competitors; the moderators were anxious about generating enough excitement to get scenes from the debate onto the next day’s news. The candidates would be coming back for more debates; the moderators had only a chance or two to make a splash. So even Williams, one of the steadiest of them, acted in one of the ways that made this year’s primary debates different from anything American politics had seen before.

Unlike in any previous campaign of the TV-debate era, neither side in this year’s primaries had an incumbent president or vice president who could be coy about agreeing to debate with challengers. All of the candidates needed airtime at least as much as the news outlets and interest groups needed them. With no incumbents or favorites who could afford to be reluctant, the advantages were on the inviters’ side. The AFL-CIO got most of the candidates to show up. So did AARP; Univision, for a debate that was simulcast in Spanish; and Logo, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) network. And Daily Kos. Cable outlets covered those forums, and held their own debates too. Even though far fewer people watch primary debates—they typically draw 2 to 3 million viewers, versus the 60 million or more who watch general-election debates—any time on TV is a plus during primary season, when candidates are otherwise speaking to small groups in living rooms and shaking hands in diners.

Fred Thompson answers the question, “Who is the prime minister of Canada?”

Those cable outlets are themselves under pressure. The national audience is much more fractured and polarized than it was during the Dole-Clinton campaign. Being smaller, the cable shows and hosts must be noisier to be noticed. A cruel fact of media life, which I checked by reading coverage of the debates, is that no one will write a big story about a debate in which candidates explain their views on health insurance. In a Republican debate last fall in Dearborn, Michigan, Chris Matthews, of MSNBC, asked Fred Thompson to name the prime minister of Canada. Thompson got it—“Harper … Prime Minister Harper”—but, Matthews told me, “Sometimes you have the sense that someone doesn’t know, and it would have been a very big story in the Canadian press, up there on the border, if he didn’t.”

Dealing with surprise and displaying spot knowledge are advantages in politics, and knowing who is the elected leader of America’s largest trading partner should be a minimum qualification for the presidency. But the impulse Matthews had—normal answers won’t get coverage, a gaffe will—emerges through the boxed-set debate season as a powerful theme in the moderators’ performances, and is apparent even in Williams’s relatively restrained one. “The goal is to have clips on other people’s shows,” Todd Gitlin, of Columbia’s Journalism School, told me.

In January of this year, two Hillary Clinton staffers—Sidney Blumenthal, who had been a close counselor to Bill Clinton and was even closer to his wife; and a law student named Daniel Freifeld—produced a taxonomy of the Democratic debates to that point. Their internal memo began, in all caps:


“Gotcha” questions were the familiar attempt to find any difference between a candidate’s position today and what he or she had ever said before. “Puffs” were open-ended speculative questions: “What is your favorite Bible verse?” all of the Democrats were asked at the end of a debate in New Hampshire on September 26. “Governance” questions, of course, concerned how the trillion-dollar federal enterprise does its work (though the category excluded questions about the military’s performance in Iraq).

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.)”

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:

Wolf Blitzer asks the candidates to answer a question about killing Bin Laden with a show of hands

BLITZER: I want everybody to raise their hand and tell me: If you agree that if the U.S. had intelligence that could take out Osama bin Laden and kill him, even though some innocent civilians would die in the process, would you, as president, authorize such an operation? If you would, raise your hand.

BIDEN: It would depend on how many innocent civilians …

CLINTON: Yes, I mean, part of this is one of these hypotheticals, Wolf …

EDWARDS: There’s not information, not enough information.

CLINTON: … that is very difficult to answer in the abstract.

“At some point, the politicians are going to take a pledge against these take-a-pledge and raise-your-hand questions,” Chris Matthews told me. “It really does put them in a kind of junior position. It’s up to one of them to have the fiber to say, ‘No! I came here to provide information, not to perform at your beck and call.’” But when the show-of-hands question made its unwelcome debut in this season’s debates, in the inaugural Brian Williams session, it appeared in a form that was hard for the candidates to duck without seeming evasive—whether they’d ever owned a gun—and by the time they saw what was happening, the pattern was set and there was no going back.

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.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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