What was up with all those inane “gotcha” questions in last night’s Democratic debate?

For my money, this was the best exchange of the night:

BRIT HUME: Senator Edwards, the Democratic national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said yesterday, I believe, that the president, by bringing up his possible support of a constitutional amendment on marriage, was preparing to introduce bigotry into the Constitution. Do you agree with that?

SEN. EDWARDS: I’m completely opposed to the constitutional amendment. I think it’s wrong and unnecessary. I wonder if I could just step back for a minute. There’s been an enormous amount of discussion in the first hour, hour-and-a-half of this debate, about us, about ourselves. You know, if we could just take a minute and talk about what’s actually happening in the country.

For example, there’s been no discussion about 35 million Americans who live in poverty every single day. Millions of Americans who work full-time for minimum wage and live in poverty …

And the only thing I’m suggesting, we need to spend some time, more time in this debate talking about the issues. Instead of talking about ourselves, why don’t we talk about them? Why don’t we talk about the voters and the things that affect their lives? That’s what we ought to be doing.

HUME: Well, Senator, I don’t think anyone would dispute …that abortion remains a potent issue in our national life, and the chairman …

EDWARDS: Thirty five million Americans living in poverty is also an important issue.

HUME: I wouldn’t dispute that for a moment. But the chairman of your party has accused the president of the United States of bigotry, and I would just like to know if you agree that bigotry is in play here?

EDWARDS: It’s not the word I’d use, but I think the president is dead wrong, dead wrong on this issue.

Sure, Edwards was making a deft move by steering the debate away from the divisive issue of gay marriage and towards a subject where he’s more comfortable. But he also seemed to be pointing out the sheer absurdity of many of the questions asked last night. Time and again, the moderators constructed questions that focused on the candidates’ past actions, and seemed designed only to generate a story for the next day’s coverage. General Wesley Clark in particular never got a chance to do anything other than rebut a series of hostile attacks.

In order to tell viewers what they’d do as president, the candidates often had to ignore the question entirely — which they did.

Could the “gotcha” questions have had anything to do with the ideological make-up of the press panel itself? Josh Marshall thinks so: “You had one questioner who is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, another who is the head political writer for a fiercely conservative newspaper, another who was a soft-soap local anchor man, and Peter Jennings. That tilt gave the questioning an unmistakable skew.”

—Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.