A New Standard for Debate Questions?

If you’re hoping to quell any grumbling about revolving doors (and I’m not including myself in that grumbling) or if you’re hoping that viewers won’t recall that you — ABC Newsman and moderator of last night’s debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton —once worked in the Bill Clinton White House, then this is probably an ill-advised way to wend your way toward an eventual question:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Clinton, when Bill Richardson called you to say he was endorsing Barack Obama, you told him that Senator Obama can’t win. I’m not going to ask you about that conversation; I know you don’t want to talk about it. But a simple yes or no question: Do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not?

Yes, telling the world that you are not asking a question of a politician (or anyone) because you know that person doesn’t want to talk about it is a fine way to inspire confidence— and a sound policy overall. It’s not that I think the question that Stephanopoulos sidestepped (did Clinton really tell Richardson that Obama can’t win in November?) is a critical, must-ask question (far from it). And I don’t think Stephanopoulos was exactly (or even consciously) cutting Clinton a break here (he did manage to remind the world about the Richardson conversation before not asking Clinton about it) but for anyone looking for any shred of evidence that Stephanopoulos was somehow treating Clinton differently, the perception (one could argue) was made.

Imagine if the “I won’t ask you that question; I know you don’t want to talk about it” standard were universally embraced, applied to all debate questions. That would make for some very short debates. Then again, it would also surely prevent a repeat of last night’s gotcha- and gaffe-centric debate.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.