Much has been written about the insipid nature of the questions from the debate moderators following the first two rounds of debates. Jake Tapper was particularly appalling with his inane Republican framing and his goading of candidate vs. candidate attacks by using the statements of a nobody like John Delaney as a measuring stick against which other candidates’ policy positions should be measured and justified.
Watching these “debates” has proven to be a painful exercise. I am constantly reminded of this horrific moment from a 1988 presidential debate:
Dukakis should have never justified and legitimized Shaw’s vile, Republican-framed question with the response he offered. Instead, he should have responded angrily, “You should be ashamed for even asking a question like that, Bernard. What a vile, horrible thing to say.” The crowd would have roared, and instead of the moment being framed as a turning point in the `88 presidential race against Dukakis, it may have been viewed as a moment when Dukakis stepped forward and shut down one of the most disgusting GOP attacks in presidential history.
Unfortunately, our candidates continue to legitimize and justify these types of questions from debate moderators far too often. I therefore propose some simple rules for all candidates to follow in future debates.
[Note that for purposes of this post, I am foregoing discussion of the appropriateness of candidates attacking one another. I am confining these recommendations to how best to respond to Republican-framed questions and other “Gotchya’”-style questions from moderators.]
1. Refuse to respond to “Raise-your-hand-if...” questions.
Invariably, these are “Gotchya” questions that attempt to dumb-down the most crucial policy issues to an inane, overly-simplistic yes or no answer that will later be used by Republicans to assault candidates. My suggestion is that all candidates refuse to play the “raise-your-hand” game because these policy issues (immigration, health care, taxation, others) require nuance that cannot be encapsulated in the simplistic notion of raising one’s hand — as the moderators know all too well.
2. Reject the framing of questions that begin with, “Candidate A said that your [_______] policy is not realistic and will result in...”
This rule is especially important when the views of a fringe candidate (Delaney, for example) are used to provoke disagreement and drive “Dems-in-disarray” messaging. There are plenty of ways for candidates to highlight their policy differences with fellow candidates without allowing moderators to set the framing. Certainly, as the field gets whittled down, there will be legitimate differences of opinion among our front-runners on key policy issues. Candidates should be free to confront fellow candidates directly on these differences without allowing insipid questioners to craft a conflict narrative. To allow an idiot like Tapper to repeatedly use the views of a nobody like Delaney as a foil to force “conflict” should be unacceptable to all of our candidates, including Delaney. I would have loved for Warren or Sanders to simply say, “ I don’t know the position of John Delaney. I’m too busy trying to counteract the horrific abuses Trump and the Republicans have repeatedly heaped upon Americans around this issue.” Candidates could then smoothly transition into explaining their own positions on these crucial policy issues while sidetracking the questioner’s narrative intent. Our candidates should not allow greasy Beltways bootlickers like Tapper or Chuck Todd create these phony “conflict” situations.
3. Deligitimize any question asked from a strictly Republican perspective.
Some of our candidates are already doing this successfully. Others are weaker and offer the kind of defensive, legitimizing answers that Dukakis gives in the example, above. All candidates should expressly reject questions that derive from exclusively Republican attacks/talking points. After debunking the Republican framing, candidates can offer an affirmative response for why their stated positions offer the best opportunity to improve the lives of all Americans. When candidates lend legitimacy to these sorts of questions by playing along with the framing, they undercut the Dem brand and contribute to the long-held belief that we should fear these Republican attacks.
Following these three simple rules will take the air out of these idiotic moderators. Don’t let them get away with their crap. Debates are not about the narratives they wish to sow. Don’t give them the power to dictate the terms of the debate.