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Questions to Ask in Tonight’s ‘Debate’

I generally hate presidential “debates,” which are really no such thing. Let me predict how things will go: The moderator will ask a question, the candidates will answer whatever question they wish had been asked because it better fits their prerehearsed answer and then they’ll move on and do it all over again with the next question. Lots of focus-group tested catchphrases and buzzwords will be thrown around, lots of empty platitudes will be uttered, and both sides will declare that they “won” an event with no winner.

Jennifer Granholm has some questions she’d like the moderator to ask of both candidates. Predictably, the questions are much tougher for Romney than for Obama — she is, after all, a Democrat with close ties to the president. But some of the Romney questions are good:

1) In a Republican primary debate, you and your colleagues refused to take a deal that allowed $10 in cuts for $1 in tax revenue. Today, would you still refuse to take a 10-to-1 deal? At the end of 2006, you signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes. Are you still bound to that pledge? Would that pledge trump your oath to uphold the Constitution? Would you vow here to never raise taxes, no matter the consequences?…

3) Be specific: Name the top three exemptions or deductions in the Tax Code that you would limit or eliminate in order to create a revenue-neutral tax structure that lowers the top rates from 35 percent to 28 percent.

And if they ask that last question, President Obama should offer to give him as much time as he needs to answer it, since that was Ryan’s excuse for not doing so the other day — gosh darn it, there just wasn’t enough time. The problem, though, is that Romney will give bullshit answers to those questions. He won’t give any specifics because he knows that any answer he gives will create immediate opposition. And the moderator will let him get away with that, even if he makes some noise about the question not being answered. What a moderator with any guts would do is just stop the debate and say that he isn’t going to move on to the next question until Romney answers it and names a specific deduction that he would be in favor of ending, and let the whole thing sit there in silence until Romney actually answers it. But that isn’t going to happen. And if it did, Republicans would scream bloody murder about the obvious bias and unfairness of it all.

As I said, her questions for Obama were mostly softballs, so let me offer a few questions I would ask the president if I was the moderator.

1. You have said that you only support the narrow version of the State Secrets Privilege, yet your administration has asserted the broadest possible version of that privilege in every single legal challenge to the government’s actions in regard to terrorism and illegal surveillance since you took office. How can there be any limits on executive authority to violate the constitution if the victims of unconstitutional actions are never given their day in court to prove their case?

2. The U.S. is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture, which obligates us to prosecute anyone who orders or engages in torture for any reason whatsoever. Do you believe that Bush administration officials or American personnel in the military or the intelligence services ordered or engaged in torture? If not, why did you feel the need to sign an executive order banning torture? And if so, why haven’t you appointed a special prosecutor to prepare charges against those who have?

3. You have justified your decision not to prosecute anyone for torture by saying that it’s important to look forward rather than backward. Yet your administration has prosecuted more people who have blown the whistle on illegal actions by the government than all previous presidents combined. Why is it only important to look forward and not backward when doing so covers up the government’s illegal actions and not when doing so helps bring those illegal actions to light?

Here again, the answers to those questions would be total bullshit. What else could they possibly be? A moderator who took his job seriously could ask follow up questions and not allow Obama to get away with a facile answer, but that isn’t going to happen either. And if it did, Democrats would scream bloody murder about the obvious bias and unfairness of it all. Welcome to America’s absurd political discourse.

Comments

  1. iknklast says

    And here’s another for Obama that will never get asked: Why, in the face of all the overwhelming evidence about anthropogenic global warming, do you continue to drag your feet, letting everyone else gut the treaties without pulling any weight? Why have you announced your support for reducing Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act regulations in face of several studies indicating that the savings to society have far outweighed the costs, and that the regulations are still not strict enough to protect human health?

    When you came into office, you stated that you were going to restore science to its proper place, but you have totally ignored the scientific assessments that indicate the gray wolf is still endangered, and have supported all actions toward removing it from the endangered species list and supported the eradication efforts (supported also by Mrs. Palin) that in some cases have as their stated goal the total extinction of the gray wolf?

  2. says

    “And if it did, Republicans would scream bloody murder about the obvious bias and unfairness of it all.”

    Ed, the Republicans wake themselves up in the morning screaming bloody murder, and lull themselves to sleep at night screaming bloody murder. It saddens and amazes me that the media is still worrying itself over how a bunch of motherfucking spoiled toddlers will react if we tell them its time to go to bed

  3. Jordan Genso says

    Consider this comment a plug for The Newsroom, as they had an episode about the ideal format for the primary debates and why rational candidates should welcome these tough questions in order to clearly show the flaws of their opponent(s) and the strength of their position (that is, if they actually believe their position is correct).

    The entire first season of that show was very good, and I think the commenters here would enjoy it.[/plug]

  4. slc1 says

    I posed a question for Romney several weeks ago as part of a discussion with Heath. Romney should be asked if he would sign a bill, if it came to his desk, which would define that life begins at conception, e.g. fertilization, and would thus outlaw current in vitro fertilization techniques, a procedure which 2 of his sons and former Vice President Cheney’s daughter, Mary, required in order for them to have children. I would also point out that his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, is a supporter of such a bill.

  5. Doug Little says

    Romney should be asked if he would sign a bill, if it came to his desk, which would define that life begins at conception, e.g. fertilization, and would thus outlaw current in vitro fertilization techniques, a procedure which 2 of his sons and former Vice President Cheney’s daughter, Mary, required in order for them to have children

    Yeah he would probably still sign it knowing full well that it doesn’t apply to him or any of his friends who are wealthy enough to get the in vitro done in another country. The same goes for the abortion debate where people with means who required an abortion would either get it done in another state or country, if it was banned at the federal level. It’s the old “do as I say not as I do” canard.

  6. ottod says

    For starters, I’d like to see the debates actually moderated. The moderator should have a big red button like the “Easy Button” in the commercials. The moderator would ask a question, then the respondent would have 30 sec. If the respondent didn’t begin to answer the question that was asked in that time, a push of the button would trigger a red warning light and there would be another 30 sec. period. If he actually began to answer the question that was asked, the moderator would hit the big red button again and allow the answer to continue. If the moderator did not hit the button within the second 30 sec., the candidate’s mike would go dead, his spotlight would go off, and the moderator would move to the other candidate with the same or another question. If the candidate veered off topic again after the moderator restarted his answer period, the moderator would again hit the red button, killing mike and light, and move to the other candidate.

    If they adopted this method for the debates, we’d either find out whether the candidates knew what they were talking about, or we’d get a lot more questions highlighting areas where they didn’t know the answers.

  7. jesse says

    Has there ever been a debate that actually was one? I suppose the last one like that I can think of was 1980. At least people responded to each other.

    I like the Town Hall format better– at least the handlers can’t absolutely control all that gets asked.

    Also, it’s interesting, but someone correct me if I am wrong: I don’t think any other democracy has this kind of thing, do they? I can’t think of one that had debates of any sort. The UK? Anyone? Bueller?

  8. says

    Will the moderators have the guts to ask the two candidates a question on a topic that has divided so many Americans: when it comes to putting in a roll of toilet paper, do they situate the roll so that they pull it from the top or the bottom?

  9. Michael Heath says

    I agree with the first two questions Ed would ask the president, they’d both be two of my top questions as well. I wished I would have thought of the third. But my top question to President Obama be:

    Mr. President, I think one of the most distinguishing attributes of this period of American history is Republican obstructionism in the Congress. What is your plan to get them working with you in the next term? Mr. Romney seems to be a smart, sane fella who governs better than he campaigns; it seems to me that a good voting strategy would be to vote for Mr. Romney to force the Republicans in Congress to work with the president to get the country’s business done. Sure it’s a type of blackmail, but why shouldn’t we vote for him if you can’t get Congress to do so?

    This is totally unfair and I’m a proud supporter of Obama, but this blackmail worked really well in Michigan where Republicans largely work with a moderate Republican governor while obstructing Jennifer Granholm’s efforts to govern, where her policy arguments weren’t all that different from the current Republican president’s. While I remain a fan of Rep. Gov. Rick Snyder, I hold Republicans in even more contempt than previous given their behavior with Gov. Granholm and then Gov. Snyder; where I can’t imagine a Democrat getting away with taxing pension income as Snyder did by getting Republicans in the state legislature to pass that tax hike.

    On the Norquist-related, “no tax hike” pledge, I’d ask it to him differently. Ask him a question about how he’s going to cut the deficit while not raising taxes as it’s normally asked; he does his basic blah, blah, blah, no answer given. Then ask him:

    Do the effective tax rates go up in your plan to cut the marginal rates 20% while also eradicating or cutting some unnamed tax credits and deductions? If he dances, ask him another way; how do you stay revenue neutral (a Romney claim)? Do you reduce the deficit by economic growth due to an effective tax rate cut, or instead with an increase in the effective rate?

    Prior to asking this question I’d prep the audience given this is a bit wonky while journalists are also too dumb to put their questions in effective rate terms. So I’d preface the question by noting that previous claims by both the Reagan and W. Bush administrations that effective tax cuts would increase revenue sufficient to grow, rather than decrease, revenue were not only wrong, but became primary components of the structural deficits during the respective H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama presidencies.

  10. malefue says

    @8/jesse:
    i seem to recall that there were televised debates leading up to the last elections in the uk.
    and the country i’m currently living in, germany, had the first televised debate in 2002, between edmund stoiber and sitting chancellor gerhard schröder. debates were considered before, but up till then candidates have never been in agreement that it would be a good idea.

  11. bobaho says

    IMHO, Kevin Baker and Jack Hitt have the best set of questions that will not be asked. The best one? It might be this one:

    President Obama, the National Defense Authorization Act, which you signed into law this year, specifically “affirms” that you as president have the right to have the military detain indefinitely any person, including American citizens, who you deem to have supported terrorists targeting the United States. When you signed the bill into law, you issued a signing statement saying that your administration would not keep any such suspects indefinitely detained without trial, and that you had serious reservations about these provisions. But aren’t you just handing over this authority, which you think may be unconstitutional, to the whim of future presidents?

  12. ewanmacdonald says

    This debate is pointless. It’s a gish gallop and it’s as well as unmoderated. Now, that said, to people who are watching this and think it’s a good way of judging candidates, Obama is being battered. Romney is tearing it up – a benefit for him of a format that doesn’t rely on facts or close examination, and instead depends on anecdotes and soundbites.

  13. StevoR says

    Let me predict how things will go: The moderator will ask a question, the candidates will answer whatever question they wish had been asked because it better fits their prerehearsed answer and then they’ll move on and do it all over again with the next question. Lots of focus-group tested catchphrases and buzzwords will be thrown around, lots of empty platitudes will be uttered, and both sides will declare that they “won” an event with no winner.

    Probably so – but not necessarily.

    Oops did we forget Rick Perry’s moments in the Republican debate(s) did we?

    My question for Mittens :

    Mitt Romneny – your own party didn’t seem to want you and tried every alternative they possibly could so how the blazes do you think you’re going to convince anyone else to vote for you?

  14. eric says

    They shifted in to stock answers on the very first question, and didn’t go off message for at least the first 20-30 minutes. Let me condense it for anyone who missed it:

    Obama – my plan’s working and I’ll stick to it. There will be some tax raises on the highest incomes because we have to, to control the deficit.

    Romney – lowering taxes on corporations will increase revenues enough to fix the deficit. I will lower everyone else’s taxes too, and make up for their lost revenue by closing loopholes.

    *****

    However, Obama did mention the 10:1 thing. Kudos for actually bringing up, y’know, something relevant and specific. Most of Obama’s stuff was bland generalities. (FYI: Romney simply didn’t answer.)

    My read from the early part was that Romney was doing better than Obama. Neither did well from an ‘informational’ point of view, but Romney’s rhetoric was clearer and stronger. Don’t know about the second two-thirds; I turned it off.

  15. Michael Heath says

    ewanmacdonald writes:

    . . . Obama is being battered. Romney is tearing it up . . .

    I didn’t see it that way at all. I counted President Obama rising above the tired talking points to drive home a good point 27 times to Mr. Romney doing the same a mere 7 times. They were both pretty wonky relative to past debates with the exception of Bill Clinton.

    Mr. Lehrer asked the question I wanted towards President Obama about working with the other party. The president pretty much denied he was being obstructed in that segment though he brought it up in others. I’m not surprised he didn’t provide a good answer because I’m not sure one even exists. Mr. Romney benefited from the question because unlike modern-day Republicans, Democrats will work with Republicans in the best interests of the country.

    And from both candidates and the moderator we learned that global warming and its threat effectively doesn’t exist. It was never even raised as a topic. The president should have went right for the jugular when Mr. Romney falsely claimed he’s worried about future generations when it comes to the debt problem. Right, in spite of looking to screw future Medicare and Medicaid recipients but far more importantly, his denial of human-generated global warming and doing anything about it. If he cared for future generations he’d be leading on climate change mitigation, not denying the existence of AGW.

  16. slc1 says

    Re Michael Heath @ #18

    Like on all too many issues, Romney has been all over the lot on climate change. Early on, his position seemed to be that he accepted the scientific consensus. However, of late, he has been pandering to his base and questioning the consensus. This just reinforces my view of Romney, that there is no there there and that the only thing he really believes in is the notion that he should be elected president. Other then that, he’s open to suggestions.

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