Dear John King

Some thoughts on debate questions

A day before the CNN Arizona Republican debate, moderator John King sits down to take your questions live. Send your questions via Twitter to @JohnKingCNN, then watch for live answers. Join the conversation. (CNN Live)

OK! John is in listening mode.

As for me, I can’t squeeze a thought into 140 characters right now, so I’ll use this forum and hope for the best. Here goes.

Dear John King: We hope you are not spending too much of your pre-debate study time reading the voluminous speculation about what each candidate “must do” to come out ahead in this crucial discussion, and then fashioning questions designed to challenge their game plans, exciting as that can be. Michael D. Shear in The New York Times, for example, was pretty breathless Monday about the “five things” that Rick Santorum “must do” Wednesday evening if he wants to “emerge from the debate with momentum on his side.” He must Look Presidential. He must Rattle Romney. He must Be Authentic. He must …

Yeah, yeah. We know it is an exciting moment, what with the setting in Arizona and the focus on Michigan, with the possibility of a new frontrunner on the tricky tightrope, and all of that.

We know, too, that the horserace is not just fun, but important. And we know the winner of these primary horseraces will be the candidate who figures out how best to appeal to primary GOP voters. So a natural frame for a lot of the questions is this: How are you positioning yourself to persuade those GOP primary voters that you are the one? On immigration. On taxes. On the Middle East. On birth control and health benefits. On whatever.

In fact, this Who Is The Most Conservative subtext has been the frame for a lot of the questions in the 19 preceding debates. We know this in part because the Citizens Agenda Project, a partnership between Studio 20, a master’s level program at New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute, and The Guardian, counted and categorized all the questions in the debates up to now, and published the results.

For one thing, the group concluded, the questions have been serious. The biggest categories of questions were about “Improving the economy and creating jobs,” about the candidates’ “Background and records,” and about “Fixing the government and reducing the debt” (some questions fit into more than one category).

Still, the next two largest categories, were “Campaign strategy and maneuvering,” and “How conservative are you?” These two categories each beat out the categories of foreign policy, national security, immigration, and health care. In fact, Citizen Agenda Project’s conclusion about the quality of the questions—the first in a list of conclusions, actually—was this:

Who’s the most conservative of all? was a preoccupation of the journalists who moderated these debates. When it wasn’t an explicit theme, it was there in the subtext.

My guess is that this was the subtext for all sorts of questions about other subjects that didn’t even get categorized under “How conservative are you?” by the project. Because to win this exciting primary horserace, you have to appeal to the slice of the country that is very conservative. So, Who is the most conservative? is a way of asking, Who is poised to win this part of the process?

But I keep thinking: One of these men could be the president in a few months, not of the GOP primary voters but of the country. Wouldn’t a better subtext for questions be, How would you weigh the complexities of problems in a nation that includes all of us?

For one thing, this might lead to questions about subjects that haven’t come up yet in 19 debates, or have barely come up. As Jay Rosen, who helps run the Studio 21 project at NYU, points out in The Guardian:

Small business got one question. Women’s rights (beyond the abortion battle) got one question. How to prevent another crash like the one in 2008: one question. Super Pacs, a huge factor in the 2012 campaign, were asked about twice.

And a more expansive frame might lead to more questions that challenge the conservative givens, rather than explore how effective those givens have been, and will be, with the base. Rosen suggests one:

Senator Santorum, you’ve referred in these debates to the “global warming hoax.” Really, Senator? Are you seriously suggesting that the 255 members of the National Academy of Science who recently signed a letter about climate change and the integrity of science have no integrity, that they are engaged in a kind of fraud?

I kind of like it. We might call these the “Really?” questions. Here’s one from me:

Mr. Romney, you have suggested in these debates that the way to deal with 11 million unauthorized immigrants in our country is “self-deportation.” Really, Governor? That translates to policies that make the lives of these people so miserable that they go away, no matter how inhumane or what benefits they provide our economy. Is that realistic?

Another approach might be to ask the candidates to list both the plusses and minuses of particular knotty policies or decisions, to try to see how they get past sound bites:

Mr. Gingrich, can you list the potential outcomes in the Middle East —both the good ones and the bad ones, please—of an attempt by Israel to take out what it believes to be Iran’s bomb-making capability with military force?

I hope you can push these guys past the tailored bites, John, because the answers in the debates do matter. I find myself persuaded by a piece by a political scientist, Jonathan Bernstein, in the current issue of Washington Monthly. Many Americans and many reporters, Bernstein writes, assume that candidates say what is expedient at the moment, particularly in primaries. And that they then move to the center as they face the larger electorate, and deepen and modify positions as they face the nuanced and complex problems a president sees.

But no, he writes, citing a great deal of research and history:

We can be governed now by measures that were adopted years ago, in some cases decades ago, based on what some candidate said in reaction to the particular dynamics of some now-obscure nomination battle.

Or, to be more blunt: presidents usually try to enact the policies they advocate during the campaign. So if you want to know what Mitt Romney or the rest of the Republican crowd would do in 2013 if elected, the best way to find out is to listen to what they are saying right now.

John, I’m just saying. Try to make them think beyond the primaries to the realities of running the country. Because their answers could shape its future.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.