Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Boring Debate Questions, Please

There's yet another GOP debate tonight. As usual, I'll be live-tweeting it (does it make sense to say live-tweeting? How else would you do it?), and I'll have a post up over at the Plum Line afterwords.*

As usual, I'm hoping that the questions are boring. Yup, boring. Look, I know that in real life most voters don't watch these things, but that's the conceit of it, and the value that ordinary voters can get out of debates is, in the first place, learning the candidates' positions on public policy. A well-informed reporter should be able to ask good questions to elicit that information (and to allow candidates to challenge each others' positions), but at least in my view what we get far too often is moderators who treat the thing as a press conference, asking gotcha questions that are perhaps more interesting to those of us who follow this stuff closely, but next to useless for most voters.

In other words, questions that are good ones for most voters are boring for anyone who spends every day listening to the candidates. Oh -- the other temptation, of course, is for the moderators to call attention to themselves. That, too, is in my view a temptation that should be resisted.

Anyway, I suppose the main question tonight (such as it is -- it's important not to overemphasize the importance of debates) is whether Rick Perry can generate a little good news for himself for a change. He's been just awful at the previous debates; I'm expecting him to beat expectations tonight, but you never know. I've also sort of predicted a bad night for Herman Cain, but again we'll have to see. If you want more pre-debate analysis, Brendan Nyhan has a nice post up with lots of sensible things to say.

(My main position on Republican debates is very simply, if I suppose somewhat idiosyncratic: I'm against having them on Tuesday nights, which is my pickup basketball night. Boo!).

*At least it will if this new-fangled "streaming" thing works out for me. I didn't even realize I didn't have Bloomberg TV, but I guess not. No complaints, since DishNetwork was nice enough to add MLB a few weeks ago. Although I still wish I had C-SPAN 3. To be fair, Dish does have Bloomberg, but on the tier I don't pay for...pretty much the only thing on that tier that I'd really like is Boomerang, although I suppose I'd sort of like to have "Chiller", which I don't know anything about except that it has Buffy.


  1. When I watched the first Obama/McCain debate in 2008, my feeling was how relieved I was to see a boring presidential debate, compared to all the ridiculous ones with Bush. It almost made me forget it was a presidential debate (which by definition is pure theater) and think it was a serious policy discussion. But it was exactly the type of debate the media hates. They want drama. They want defining moments. They got one in the second debate when Mccain offhandedly referred to Obama as "that one" (which I confess I never would have noticed if the media hadn't made a big deal about it--in fact, I assumed at the time that McCain had scored a rhetorical point).

    As for the expectations game, I can't help being reminded of how it went over for Palin in 2008. There are still many conservatives (even relatively reasonable ones like David Brooks) who make the laughable claim that she "won" the debate against Joe Biden. Of course the polls indicated that most viewers did not think so, and there isn't a shred of evidence that the perception of her as an unqualified lightweight declined following the debate. But she did exceed expectations, if only by avoiding the kind of sputtering, incoherent answers she gave during the Couric interview that had made her so notorious in the first place. I don't think Perry's bad debate performances have made him seem anywhere near as clueless or incompetent as Palin came off during that interview, but he probably has to do more than avoid embarrassment to make up for his past errors.

  2. Kylo: I remember "that one" as striking me. I didn't think McCain meant it in a racist way, but I did think it wasn't going to play well. In a very minor way, that's one of the things I look for in debates (when I bother watching them.) That's because, in the real world, these folks are going to be on the phone with leaders with some frequency. That's an even more elaborate Kabuki dance than our debates. So, if they can't even manage to do debates well, what makes us think they won't say the wrong things on the job?

    Remember, Glaspie told Saddam that we "had no position on Arab-Arab conflicts, such as Iraq's border dispute with Kuwait." She was giving the standard line there. But, she was unwittingly sending a green light signal to Iraq. So, when a potential president misspeaks often, or can't seem to say the exact language that he was told he was required to say in a given circumstance, I'm concerned that president will say something ill-advised on the phone with a foreign leader.

  3. Chiller shows lots of really campy, low-budget, straight-to-video horror movies about 50% of the time, and old primetime made-for-TV horror movies/miniseries the other 50%. Enjoy!

  4. @Matt

    If you were watching the debate with your ears perked up for little signals and were paying less attention to the content of what each speaker was saying, then I can understand isolating a phrase like "that one" and interpreting it as disrespectful if not racist. But in the context of McCain's remark, it didn't seem so ominous:

    "It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me."

    It sounded like what McCain was aiming for was the kind of rhetorical flourish where some unidentified person you were describing turns out to be right in front of you. Depersonalizing the referent is a way people sometimes try to preserve the surprise (or at least pretend to do so) for a split-second longer. You hear "that one," and for the briefest of moments you think, "Who? Where? Oh, yeah, that one." It's similar to the way "yours truly" is used as a substitute for "me." As a matter of fact, the phrase "yours truly" would have sounded quite natural as a replacement to "me" in McCain's remark, strengthening the parallelism:

    "You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Yours truly."

    This is not to suggest that McCain didn't come off as disrespectful. But I doubt he intended it that way, and it certainly wasn't the signal I heard.

  5. Watching Perry tonight, for some reason I was reminded of one of those mid-summer filler issues of SI about a decade ago, on the "Most Underrated/Most Overrated" in sports. So they had the most underrated and overrated tennis or basketball players, coaches, etc. etc. etc. until they filled a magazine.

    One of the categories was "status", where the Most Underrated Status was - Being Overrated (Because we tend to like brash sports stars). The Most Overrated Status was - Being Underrated, since it implied a phony humility and often was well-deserved.

    These last several weeks, we all - here and elsewhere - have played the "Don't write off Rick Perry" game, since drawing too many conclusions from the mega-dope he presented in the first few debates underrated him vis-a-vis the viable candidate he surely was.

    Watching Rick Perry tonight its hard not to think maybe Sports Illustrated was right, lo those many years ago. Being underrated is totally overrated.

  6. I'm mostly with Kylopod on that one.

    However, I do believe that McCain did give a blatantly racist answer to one question:


  7. Two more things:

    1. Hey, 90% junk and 10% Buffy? That still beats half the channels out there.

    2. Our own CSH is a star!


  8. I watched the debate tonight and I got to say, the questions were actually somewhat boring and to my surprise, the gotcha questions were minimal. You are right on with this post. Most people do not watch these debates, and for those that do, it should be about the policies of the candidates, not gotcha and bait questions. I just started up a political blog also if you want to check it out and let me know what you think: keepamericastrongnow.blogspot.com
    You seem very knowledgable and i'd like any input

  9. Hey Jonathan, thanks for the props. You've got some awfully intelligent folks tuned into this forum, which I suppose you already knew. Its quite an honor to be picked up over there.

    One of the things I love about this place is the personal enrichment that comes from throwing stuff against the wall: if it sticks, great; if it doesn't, you learn something. Don't know about anyone else, but if folks are going to start citing us, for myself I could see a self-conscious attempt to reclaim some of that caution long ago thrown to the wind. In any event, thanks again.

  10. Romney-Cain 2012!

    Oh, sorry. What was that about stickiness?

  11. Regarding McCain's "That one" comment, I have to admit that I just assumed McCain had forgotten his name. (I still don't exclude it as a possibility.)


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