How to Dodge Debate Dodges

CNN debate demanded one simple phrase

Last night’s CNN debate drew the respect and attention that the first debate, hosted in early May by Fox News, just couldn’t muster. This time, front-running Mitt Romney was on the scene. He was joined by the recently humbled Newt Gingrich and by newcomer Michele Bachmann, who stole a moment to announce that she was just about ready to announce her campaign. All three had been absent last month.

After a brief round of introductions, John King ran through some nuts and bolts, closing the rules with this hope: “We’ve also asked the candidates to answer the question they were asked, rather than the question they might have wished to be asked.”

What would a presidential debate be without some aspirations being voiced that we all very well know won’t be met?

Over the next two hours, the candidates proved to be canny, as you’d expect, at avoiding questions, even those that were exceptionally well crafted and specific. And they didn’t really have to worry about it being called out for it.

Which is too bad, and which should be a cautionary tale for other journalists interviewing candidates or moderating debates in this or any other election. And it’s especially frustrating when journalists possess an excellent tool to pin dodgers.

Here it is, a simple phrase: “You haven’t answered my question.”

And it was one that more or less went unsaid through the two-hour exercise. The debate had no buzzer or blinking light to shut of filibustering candidates, so John King registered hundreds of oral objections, interrupting candidates who were running long or wandering from the question’s path with demi-syllabic blurts.

But rarely were such objections put into clear words. One exception came when John King focused on a spark from Tim Pawlenty over the weekend. For a candidate who’s fighting a perception of being a bit dull, Pawlenty fired a notable shot at Romney on Fox News Sunday by calling Obama’s health care plan “Obamneycare,” a blend of their two names and statutes; to ensure broad coverage, both plans impose an individual mandate to purchase insurance, a deeply unpopular concept among many Republican primary voters.

King sought to fan said spark into a flame, asking Romney a question that offered up Pawlenty’s juicy coinage. “Is that a fair characterization?” King asked. Romney passed, constraining his ire to the President’s plan, with an outline that sought to define differences between their two systems.

King turned to Pawlenty, who confined his response to boasting about the changes he’d made as governor or Minnesota. That failed to satisfy his inquisitor.

“The question governor, was why Obamneycare?” pressed King. “You have thirty seconds, governor.”

Pawlenty’s response again avoided describing what he’d meant by using the term. So King tried one more time:

“And you don’t want to address why you called Governor Romney’s [plan] Obamneycare?”

After that, Pawlenty finally gave a jumbled and bloodless, if sensible, answer. In using the term, he said he was alluding to quotes from the President’s advisors who have claimed they looked to Romney’s Massachusetts model for a “blueprint, or a guide” as they went about designing their health care plan.

The go-around was one of the few times, if not the only time, throughout the debate where a candidate was not only asked an unanswered question again, but where the candidate’s failure to answer the question at hand was explicitly pointed out.

And it worked. That “you don’t want to address” actually elicited a response. It may not have had the fire that Pawlenty’s supporters would have wanted, or brought the sizzle of a political spat that would have spiced up the debate. But Pawlenty did answer.

Of course, this was not, strictly speaking, a point of policy consequence. It was a round of campaign rhetoric tug-of-war. But the technique would work on matters of greater substance.

Take, for example, a pair of questions from John DiStaso, a veteran political reporter at the Manchester Union Leader (a debate co-host), directed at Herman Cain. The question was strong, with a full list of wanted details:

“Could you be specific regarding ages, income levels… what is your specific—specific—Social Security reform plan, with regard to raising the retirement age—what ages—cutting benefits, and at what income level means testing cutting in?”

“Let’s fix the problem. And that is to restructure Social Security,” Cain began, with an answer that included nary an age or a dollar figure.

A brief “You didn’t answer my question” could have done wonders. But King soon chimed in with “we’re going to keep the conversation moving,” leaving Cain’s retirement security plans entirely unsketched.

Just after that non-exchange was a question from Jennifer Vaughn, an anchor at WMUR, the local ABC affiliate, and another co-host. Her question was succinct, the kind that would seem to demand a yes or no response.

“The treasury department says the United States will hit its credit limit on August 2. Do you believe that we will ultimately have to raise the debt ceiling?” she asked Governor Romney.

“I believe we will not raise the debt ceiling unless the president finally, finally, is wiling to be a leader on issues that the American people care about,” Romney began his sidestepping response.

Vaughn made a second attempt: “Governor, what happens if you don’t raise it? What happens then? Is it ok not to?”

“Well, what happens if we continue to spend, time and time again, year and year again, more money than you take in?” was Romney’s second artful dodge.

Again, straightforwardly pointing out that the fact went unanswered could have done wonders. Something like: “Governor, you didn’t answer my question: what I’m asking is if you believe the US will eventually have to raise the debt ceiling, or do you favor default?”

So, despite King’s plea at the top of the proceedings, the candidates declined to answer the questions as they were asked.

For debate veterans, that’s certainly not a surprise—it’s the normal state of affairs. And that’s the way it will stay until debate moderators learn to stick up for themselves, their questions, and the voters by pointing out when candidates just brush by.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR. Tags: , , , , ,