There’s no established playbook for moderating debates like those conducted since last August for this year’s crowd of GOP presidential candidates. The five debates to date received record viewership, and each team of moderators took a markedly different approach to phrasing questions. On the Democratic side, there are only three candidates left and little disagreement or suspense—the questions all but ask themselves. But the GOP’s large, diverse, and contentious field has made the questioning more difficult than ever before.
With the next Republican debate coming up on Thursday and many more to follow, it’s useful to reflect on what types of questions are proven duds, and which have yielded some semblance of insight. In general, a teaspoon of gimmickry might be needed to make the substance go down, but too many strained and offbeat questions push these events into the realm of frivolous theater.
First, the duds:
The Cross Examination
Becky Quick of CNBC: Senator Rubio, you yourself have said that you’ve had issues. You have a lack of bookkeeping skills. You accidentally intermingled campaign money with your personal money. You faced foreclosure on a second home that you bought. And just last year, you liquidated a $68,000 retirement fund. That’s something that cost you thousands of dollars in taxes and penalties. In terms of all of that, it raises the question whether you have the maturity and the wisdom to lead this $17 trillion economy. What do you think?
Debates aren’t interviews. In a one-on-one, this topic would surely warrant a sequence of questions. In a debate, it’s too easy for a candidate like Rubio to brush off those allegations as “discredited attacks” and move on unscathed. Scathing or not, debate moderating is ineffective as a series of interrogations. That makes moderators appear to be grandstanding, which was CNBC’s undoing in the third debate. And the more candidates on stage, the more arbitrary the decision of who gets asked what. Here’s a guideline: Only introduce a topic specific to one candidate when others could also weigh in. Nobody would comment on Rubio’s personal finances other than Rubio, so the question wasn’t fit for a debate.
The Cage Match
Chris Wallace of Fox News: Senator Rubio, when Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for presidency, he said this: “There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd.” Could you please address Governor Bush across the stage here, and explain to him why you, someone who has never held executive office, are better prepared to be president than he is, a man who you say did a great job running your state of Florida for eight years?
In the third debate, Ted Cruz memorably called questions pitting candidates against each other a “cage match.” Those questions almost always cite one opponent by name because, according to debate rules, any candidate named in a question gets an automatic rebuttal, allowing a head-to-head without others jumping in. Such faceoffs are contrived, though: Senators Paul or Cruz might just as easily have been asked to address Governors Huckabee, Kasich, Walker, or Christie on the issue of legislative versus executive experience. Yes, it is valuable to force candidates to confront those they’ve criticized, but the fact that Bush and the incessant thorn in his side, Trump, are paired so regularly reveals that entertainment is a primary motive here.
The Social Media Pander
Bret Baier of Fox News: Governor Huckabee, on Facebook, John Pietricone asked this: “Will you abolish or take away the powers and cut the size of the EPA, the IRS, the Department of Education?” Now, broadly, the size of government is a big concern for Facebook users, Facebook persons, as well as, obviously, conservatives. But year after year, decade after decade, there are promises from Republicans to shrink government. But year after year, decade after decade, it doesn’t happen. In fact, it gets bigger, even under Republican politicians. So the question is, at this point, is the government simply too big for any one person, even a Republican, to shrink?
The inclusion of questions from Facebook and Twitter is nothing more than a gimmick to get people to engage the TV networks on social media. It’s tedious, but perhaps as inevitable nowadays as commercial breaks. Still, how odd that the Facebook question was quoted, then rephrased to erase its specificity. Baier apparently thought he had a better question. It seems it was never really about you, Mr. Pietricone.
WHILE THERE MAY be inherent shortcomings in debates with too many participants, there are some types of questions worth highlighting for their ability to elicit meaningful answers from the candidates:
The Reality Check
Quick: Dr. Carson, let’s talk about taxes. You have a flat tax plan of 10 percent flat taxes. And I’ve looked at it, and this is something that is very appealing to a lot of voters, but I’ve had a really tough time trying to make the math work on this. If you were to take a 10 percent tax, with the numbers right now in total personal income, you’re going to … bring in $1.5 trillion. That is less than half of what we bring in right now. And by the way, it’s gonna leave us in a $2 trillion hole. So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?
Any campaign promise that’s seemingly too good to be true should be challenged. Candidates can’t be expected to spell out a tax plan or an economic strategy in 60 seconds, but if they don’t offer anything close to a substantive defense of their platform, that’s telling. When Carson replied that closing loopholes and tightening spending could offset $1.1 trillion in tax revenue losses, Quick said those spending cuts would have to amount to about 40 percent. “It’s not true,” Carson said. “It is true. I looked at the numbers,” Quick replied, to which Carson responded: “When we put all the facts down, you will be able to see that it’s not true. It works out very well.” After hearing this exchange, voters might feel compelled to read up on whether the numbers do, in fact, add up.
The “Spell It Out”
Wolf Blitzer of CNN: Dr. Carson, you’re in favor of monitoring mosques and schools where there is anti-America sentiment. What do you consider anti-America?
Candidates tend to float vague governing principles that call for more precise definition. Shallow thinking, after all, is why many policies dupe voters and fail. That ambiguity in need of clarity can extend to criticisms. In the fourth debate, on Fox Business Network, Neil Cavuto called Marco Rubio on saying the recent Democratic debate was “a night of giveaways.” Cavuto shrewdly asked Rubio, “Tell us tonight what you’d give back.”
The Show of Hands
Baier: Gentlemen, we know how much you love hand-raising questions. So, we promise this is the only one tonight. The only one. Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?
Debates should help voters tell candidates apart. On a stage of 10, as it was that night, or seven, as it will be on Thursday (the networks’ qualification metrics vary), that’s almost impossible. But when an issue can be addressed with a simple yes or no, why not do just that? And better to get answers at once, rather than “down the line,” which lets candidates consider prior responses. Issues in last year’s debates, such as raising the minimum wage or eliminating birthright citizenship, would have benefited from a show of hands. In those cases, it’s an effective device to get a full survey. And if politicians don’t love this type of question, all the more reason to ask it.Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt