How do you catch a candidate and pin him down?

MinnPost asked Sen. Al Franken's challenger nine times what he'd do about Medicare and Social Security. The exchange is illuminating for reporters and voters.

Eric Black, a political columnist for MinnPost, offered a great example recently of how to pin down (or, at least, try mightily) a political candidate who slips and slides around important issues without specifying for voters exactly what he stands for. In this case, the candidate is Republican Mike McFadden who is running against Democratic Sen. Al Franken. For “one in an occasional series of articles about the [candidates’] policy positions,” Black asked McFaddden—and he gave the candidate the question in advance of his interview—what he proposes to do to about the looming financial shortfalls in both Medicare and Social Security. “It was surprising how hard McFadden fought to avoid committing himself to anything resembling a change in either program that would extend their projected solvency,” Black wrote in his July 23 column, which consisted mostly of his full exchange with McFadden (“on the off chance you might find it amusing or interesting,” Black wrote) as well as some bracketed annotations from Black. The Black-McFadden exchange is indeed interesting—and illuminating. Black’s push back on McFadden’s non-commital candiate-speak is admirable, and he deserves a shout out for giving all reporters a lesson in getting candidates to say what they mean.

For starters, Black pointed out that McFadden’s position statements on his website “raise far more questions than they answer.” If Black’s own search for answers from McFadden was not entirely productive, it was not for lack of trying. He asked McFadden nine different times what he would do to save Medicare and Social Security, redirecting the candidate at several points away from generalities and context-free talking points back to the question at hand. Midway through the exchange, having not yet extracted anything close to an answer but determined to do so, Black summarized what the candidate had said in the interview so far:

OK, so you disagree with people who say there’s no problem [with Medicare and Social Security]. You think there is a problem. You want to sit at the table and you want to do something. There’s certain things you don’t want to do. You haven’t mentioned yet anything that you do want to do. To change the program.

Black’s tenacity yielded one specific: McFadden favors raising the age of eligibility for Medicare (one of several options floating around Washington about which, at least in this interview, McFadden showed a glaring lack of knowledge). McFadden said he would like the age for collecting benefits to be tied to life expectancy, a highly nuanced issue and not as simple as pols portray it—for example, income generally declines as people age, so how will older people afford health care if they have to wait longer for Medicare help? When McFadden pointed out that the eligibility age had already been raised for Social Security, Black pounced again. “That’s still headed for insolvency, so what would you do about it?” he asked.

Now it really became clear the candidate didn’t want to discuss specific policy alternatives. Black asked what options on the table would he support. First, the answer was “everything,” and then McFadden equivocated after Black asked if he would support “everything anybody can think of” to extend Social Security’s solvency. “No, I didn’t say that I would be for: all I would say is that we have to look at all the different options.” In the end, Black got the candidate to admit that he wasn’t, as Black summarized it, “at this point prepared to talk about elements of the solution [he] would favor.”

And this opens the door for more questioning from Black (and others!) in subsequent interviews. Maybe by then candidate McFadden will be ready to say, for example, whether he favors lifting the cap on the amount of wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes, a solution favored by many, though not the business community.
Perhaps he will be ready to discuss curbing government dollars flowing to Medicare Advantage plans, which, as the Center for Public Integrity has so well reported, are overpaid. That step could save billions. As the Center reported last week, Medicare’s own researchers have just concluded that Medicare Advantage plans have for years routinely overbilled the government for treating elderly patients. One good question for Black to ask: Would McFadden—and Sen. Franken, for that matter, who came under fire in the Center’s series earlier this summer—take steps to curb these payments and help Medicare stay solvent? That’s one potential solution.

Black has his work cut out for him, but his strong performance so far indicates he’s up to the job.

Related content:

Medicare, Paul Ryan, and beyond: a primer

Medicare Uncovered: Corker and his bill

Investigating a $150 billion ‘black box’

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , , ,