Todd Rogers, a behavioral psychologist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, got interested in looking at pivots, or dodges, or whatever you want to call them, after watching the 2004 Bush/Kerry debate I quoted earlier.Well, I don't feel the same, so I'll try to explain.
To him, the dodging on both sides of that debate was enraging, and he couldn't understand why others didn't feel the same.
Rogers and others worried about this -- and in my experience, most people are on his side, not mine -- in my view have a fundamentally wrong view of what debates are all about. It's basically a goo goo idea of debates...voters should come into the debates open-minded, the candidates should speak (rationally, honestly) about "the issues" in order to give voters a good rational basis for making vote choices based on those answers.
I think that's about 75% fantasy. Voters don't watch the general election debates with an open mind; virtually everyone who watches has already decided, or is leaning so strongly that we can probably speak of them as having decided but not realized it yet. Most undecided voters, at any rate, don't have strong views on most issues, so they're not going to choose based on carefully comparing the candidates' positions to their own, anyway. That doesn't mean that debates are worthless; I'll have a post later today on why I think debates are valuable anyway. But the implicit model here of what debates should be is mostly based on fiction.
(What isn't fiction? I like questions about public policy rather than clown questions about campaign events or gaffes or other nonsense. Also, I'm pro-honesty, at least within reason; I don't think candidates should outright lie about things, and I favor attempts to discourage that sort of thing).
At any rate: because I don't expect debates to offer a thoughtful discussion of The Issues which will allow voters to make rational choices based on the candidates' positions, which are revealed only thanks to clever questions by moderators, I have no problems with a candidate who ducks a question he or she doesn't want to answer. For the most part, I think what's valuable about the debates has to do with the candidates talking about whatever it is they want to talk about; indeed, I think what's valuable about the campaign is having the candidates talk about what they want to talk about. Yes, I'd like to nudge them a bit towards public policy and away from, oh, whether the other candidate was really a Soviet operative (an actual debate topic in 1992), and so I'd like decent questions. But beyond that -- hey, it's a skill to answer the question you want rather than the question you're asked; it's a skill to avoid talking about what you don't want to talk about without overly insulting your audience. It's fine if politicians demonstrate that skill during the debates.