Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Debate Questions? Fair

There's an early consensus that, in the words of Jonathan Chait, "Obama enjoyed friendly questions from an audience that obviously leaned left" in the second debate. Naturally, conservatives agree. I thought the questions favored Obama during the debate, but a second look convinced me that it's wrong: the questions were about as fair as it gets.

From the "Town Hall" audience questions, I count three that were solidly pro-Obama and one that was somewhat pro-Obama; three solidly pro-Romney and one somewhat pro-Romney; and three neutral ones.

So, why the false impression? I think it was because of the sequence; the three great questions for Obama were the third, fourth, and fifth questions overall, and there was no similar sustained block of pro-Romney questions to break the illusion. What's more, Obama was doing a better job overall, which made good Romney questions seem less biting and good Obama questions more obvious. But at any rate, it was an illusion.

Okay, the breakdown (transcript here). I'll start with the great ones for Obama: one that challenged Romney to detail which deductions he would get rid of for middle class voters; one on the topic of pay equity for women; and one which challenged Romney to differentiate himself from George W. Bush. Now, there's really no excuse for Romney not having a great answered prepared for the two challenge questions -- he did not -- but I think it's fair to call those questions which Barack Obama should have been happy to hear.

But they were matched by three great ones for Romney. First, an energy question:
Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?
Later, and parallel to the Romney/Bush question, a challenge that Obama's presidency has been a disappointment:
Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I'm not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.
As with Bush/Romney, that's one that sets up well for a strong comeback, but it still frames the Obama presidency exactly how Romney and Paul Ryan have often framed it.

The third one was the Libya question:
We were sitting around talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?
Not only could Romney not have asked for better wording, but he also should have been thrilled that there was only one foreign policy question asked the whole time -- and that one question was on Libya. Of course, in the event, this question was Romney's most talked-about botch, but it wasn't because of the question.

I scored two questions as marginally useful, one for each campaign. The gun control question probably was asked by a liberal (the question was about banning "assault weapons"), but it was asked as a challenge to Obama, and it's generally a topic which Republicans would much rather see raised. On the other hand was the question on immigration, which is a topic thought in this cycle to favor Democrats. So one question each which somewhat favored the candidate.

And three questions seemed neutral to me. The final question was about misperceptions of the candidates, and was clearly neutral. Then there were two questions about jobs. The very first question was about the bleak outlook for jobs for college graduates; late in the debate one of the undecided voters asked about outsourcing. One could score the overall topic as good for Romney, but given how central jobs is to the campaign, two questions on the topic seems pretty reasonable, and neither was framed in any particular partisan way. "The outsourcing of American jobs overseas has taken a toll on our economy. What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here in the United States?"

So three great questions for each candidate, one good one for each (although both asked from a liberal point of view), and three neutral ones, albeit two which were basically on turf Romney wants to be on. I'm open to anyone who wants to challenge my characterizations, but I just don't see it. Whatever the makeup of the undecided voters, the questions Candy Crowley chose from them seemed about as balanced as it could get.


  1. Yeah, I agree. In fact, I'd go one step further: I don't see how asking Romney how he is different from George Bush is a great question for Obama. Now, obviously this question is often used as a rhetorical question from Dems, but the woman who asked it was unhappy with Bush AND unhappy with Obama - a pretty reasonable view! She wanted to know what Romney would do differently. I don't see how that's great for Obama. And I would think that Romney would welcome that question (from an impartial source!) as it gives him a chance to sell his ideas. In fact, looked at in one way, the question boils down to this: tell me why I should elect you (given that I am unhappy with both Bush and Obama). That's a pretty simple question that Romney should want to answer, I would think.

    1. I think it's a great question for Obama because Bush left office, and remains, quite unpopular, and--from my own quite biased point of view--it allows Obama to make just that point.

      I think any question that really can only be asked of one side, therefore giving the other guy 2 minutes to say whatever he wants, could be seen as a biased question. However, if there's a balance of those, it's largely fine; Lehrer's "how are you different" frame doesn't allow for candidates to get asked tough questions.

    2. Matt Jarvis, there's also some concern among liberals that Obama is no different then GWB when it comes to some national security and financial policies. Drones attacks, kill lists, surveillance of US citizens on security issues; there's still a Bush-appointed fed in place and little in the way of criminal charges against big banks.

      We don't talk about it much anymore, but the whole Bush/Cheney ideology on the unitary executive hasn't been dismantled. I'd point you to this piece by Conor Friedersdorf piece:

    3. All true, but the question went to Romney. That allows Obama to give the response he gave: "no, you ARE the same as Bush." The question of Obama's similarities to Bush never has to come up....and it didn't.

      My point is that Obama gets to use that question to tie Romney to Bush, whereas Romney is kinda forced to find a way to weasel out of the question. The subject of the question is Romney the whole time, and not in a good way.

    4. I'd argue that if Romney had true, technocratic vision for America that would allow start-ups to newly flourish, this question would have been perfect. He could have explained how he'd encourage private investment into US corporations to spur new economic growth. We'd all be rapt.

      But Romney doesn't.

      To tell you the truth, even me, the dead yellow dog Democrat, really wishes that he did. This question was an opening to allow the two parties to make some headway on real governance.

    5. It's a small point in the overall scheme of things, but: Sure the question mentions both Romney and Bush, but isn't this a reasonable thing to worry about? Isn't this on some peoples' minds anyway? Obama really doesn't need an opening - he can turn nearly any question into one that connects Romney to Bush.

      Someone is unhappy with the last 12 years. She thinks she knows how Romney is different than Obama, with whom she also voices displeasure, remember. Now she wants to know how Romney is different than Bush. I imagine many people have the same question. And it was posed in the most favorable way to Romney - please, give me your talking points! She didn't ask it in the following ways: "Bush cut taxes for the rich, but that didn't spur growth. Why should your tax cuts be different?" or "Bush favored the rich and your policies seem to favor the rich, as well. How is that fair?" It was simply, tell me how you'll do things differently than your immediate predecessors. I don't see how that is great for Obama, and in fact, I would think Romney would be and should be eager to answer that question. I agree that he weaseled on substance, but I doubt many low information voters saw it that way, as he rattled of his main talking points.

    6. Yes, Bush should have had a great answer prepared for why he's different than Bush (although it is severely constrained by his extremely Bush-like economic policies). But it's the wrong thing for him to be talking about!

      It's an exact parallel for the disappointed Obama voter. And if you go back to that one, Obama did give a strong answer...followed by Romney's chance for a strong response. The point is that the frame of "why shouldn't I be disappointed with your presidency?" stinks for Obama, while the frame of "why aren't you just another W." stinks for Romney.

    7. Yes, Bush should have had a great answer prepared for why he's different than Bush (although it is severely constrained by his extremely Bush-like economic policies)

      I've learned more about how manuscript transmission works in a couple of years reading blogs than in ten years of doing classics (and midrash!).

      -- does that sound like I'm being sarcastic? I'm not. To any Midwesterners reading: not sarcastic.

    8. I guess I don't see it as a parallel at all, as the one re: Obama is about his record which Obama cannot run from but the other is about what Romney will do in the future and he really can run (rhetorically) safely from Bush's record (in the sense of saying Bush went off the rails with his deficit spending and so on). I think Ezra Klein thinks that question is actually good for Romney, as well. So I guess I just disagree. I get Matt Jarvis's point that any question directed at one candidate gives the other the ability to say whatever he or she wants.

  2. How much does this perception have to do with the fact that the male/female balance WAS actually balanced and the somewhat, in my memory, unusual circumstance that several women spoke without an intervening question from a man? If a man had asked Romney how he differed from Bush -- a question that really gave him a great opening to provide the specifics that he avoided in his opening sales pitch -- would conservatives have been as likely to see it as an Obama-friendly question? Or would it have been perceived more neutrally? Or, did it only seem "liberal" because it asked him to do the one thing the campaign most avoids -- speak in specifics about what he would do once in office?

  3. I'd describe it as a "non-Villager" series of questions.

    Shocked, shocked that when you ask a group of actual people, you don't hear a half-dozen questions about the deficit.


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