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Why don’t candidates answer the question?

A few reactions to last night’s debate:

I agree with what I take to be the conventional wisdom. No big gaffes, no game-changing moments, few surprises, not much new except for John McCain’s big opening announcement of a proposal for a massive new federal program to buy up bad mortgages and offer taxpayer-subsidized relief to the homeowners so they can stay in their homes.

McCain didn’t say what that idea would cost, but his campaign distributed a fact sheet that estimated $300 billion, which I take to be on top of the $700 billion just passed to bail out the financial system. I assume the cost goes directly on top of the deficit and debt. McCain will presumably give more details and perhaps explain how this fits in with his general less-government free-market philosophy.

Anyway, as far as I could tell, that was the only real news of the evening. The post-debate analysts were also very curious about why McCain never brought up Barack Obama’s past associations with 1960s radical William Ayers. Seemed likely to me that such an insertion would have backfired.

The format didn’t work particularly well. Conservatives claimed it helped McCain (because it’s his favorite type of event) but he didn’t seem all that comfortable. Tom Brokaw played too heavy a role and the audience questions weren’t very different from questions the candidates answer all the time. (I did love the last question: “What don’t you know and how will you learn it?” But it didn’t produce interesting answers.)

I’m pretty tired of McCain complaining about Obama’s statement that if he knew where in Pakistan Osama bin Laden was hiding, and the Pakistanis wouldn’t go after him, the U.S. should “take him out.” In explaining yet again the problem with this, McCain said: “I’m not going to telegraph my punches.” So is he worried that Obama’s loose lips have tipped bin Laden off that the U.S. is trying to get him?

I thought Obama’s comeback referring to McCain singing “Bomb Bomb Iran” put McCain in a poor position to give lectures against saber rattling. (It was a little unfair since McCain was joking, sorta, when he sang the old Beach Boys song.)

I was very slightly reassured (but not much) that McCain said he didn’t want to restart the Cold War with Russia. In his St. Paul Republican convention acceptance speech, McCain had included Russia, along with al Qaida and Iran, as the three “threats to peace and liberty in our time,” which had me sorta worried. But last night, after coming out against a new Cold War, he did say that “we have to make the Russians understand that there are penalties” for actions like Russia recent aggression against Georgia. I’m almost OK with that formulation (although I wonder how McCain would feel about other nations trying to make the U.S. understand that there are penalties for actions that offend the international community’s sense of proper conduct), but the way McCain talks about Russia just strikes me as a guy spoiling for a fight. He’s got this little joke about what he saw when he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes: “three letters, a K, a G and a B.”

Answer the question
My pet peeve of the night was the non-responsive answer.

The candidates were asked both how and when they planned to restrain the projected growth of entitlement spending that is on a path to bankrupt the government and the country. Obama sort of said when (not in the first two years but maybe in the second half of his term) but nothing about how. McCain said Social Security should be the topic of high level bipartisan discussions and Medicare should be handled by a blue-ribbon panel and put to an up-or down no-fooling-around congressional vote. Yup, that should do it.

The candidates were asked what sacrifices they were prepared to ask of Americans. Here’s the transcript of that portion. Tell me who, other than the defense contractors who might want to defraud the Air Force on a tanker deal, will have to sacrifice under either President Obama or McCain, according to this answer:

Brokaw: Senator McCain, for you, we have our first question from the Internet tonight. A child of the Depression, 78-year-old Fiora from Chicago.

Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices — sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we’re now in?

McCain: Well, Fiorra, I’m going to ask the American people to understand that there are some programs that we may have to eliminate.

I first proposed a long time ago that we would have to examine every agency and every bureaucracy of government. And we’re going to have to eliminate those that aren’t working.

I know a lot of them that aren’t working. One of them is in defense spending, because I’ve taken on some of the defense contractors. I saved the taxpayers $6.8 billion in a deal for an Air Force tanker that was done in a corrupt fashion.

I believe that we have to eliminate the earmarks. And sometimes those projects, not — not the overhead projector that Senator Obama asked for, but some of them that are really good projects, will have — will have to be eliminated, as well. And they’ll have to undergo the same scrutiny that all projects should in competition with others.

So we’re going to have to tell the American people that spending is going to have to be cut in America. And I recommend a spending freeze that — except for defense, Veterans Affairs, and some other vital programs, we’ll just have to have across-the-board freeze.

And some of those programs may not grow as much as we would like for them to. [Not grow as much? I thought these unnamed programs were frozen?] But we can establish priorities with full transparency, with full knowledge of the American people, and full consultation, not done behind closed doors and shoving earmarks in the middle of the night into programs that we don’t even — sometimes we don’t even know about until months later.

And, by the way, I want to go back a second.

Look, we can attack health care and energy at the same time. We’re not — we’re not — we’re not rifle shots here. We are Americans. We can, with the participation of all Americans, work together and solve these problems together.

Frankly, I’m not going to tell that person without health insurance that, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait.” I’m going to tell you Americans we’ll get to work right away and we’ll get to work together, and we can get them all done, because that’s what America has been doing.

Brokaw: Senator McCain, thank you very much. Senator Obama?

Obama: You know, a lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11 and where you were on that day and, you know, how all of the country was ready to come together and make enormous changes to make us not only safer, but to make us a better country and a more unified country.

And President Bush did some smart things at the outset, but one of the opportunities that was missed was, when he spoke to the American people, he said, “Go out and shop.”

That wasn’t the kind of call to service that I think the American people were looking for.

And so it’s important to understand that the — I think the American people are hungry for the kind of leadership that is going to tackle these problems not just in government, but outside of government.

And let’s take the example of energy, which we already spoke about. There is going to be the need for each and every one of us to start thinking about how we use energy.

I believe in the need for increased oil production. We’re going to have to explore new ways to get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling. It includes telling the oil companies, that currently have 68 million acres that they’re not using, that either you use them or you lose them.

We’re going to have to develop clean coal technology and safe ways to store nuclear energy.

But each and every one of us can start thinking about how can we save energy in our homes, in our buildings. And one of the things I want to do is make sure that we’re providing incentives so that you can buy a fuel efficient car that’s made right here in the United States of America, not in Japan or South Korea, making sure that you are able to weatherize your home or make your business more fuel efficient.

And that’s going to require effort from each and every one of us.

And the last point I just want to make. I think the young people of America are especially interested in how they can serve, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in doubling the Peace Corps, making sure that we are creating a volunteer corps all across this country that can be involved in their community, involved in military service, so that military families and our troops are not the only ones bearing the burden of renewing America.

That’s something that all of us have to be involved with and that requires some leadership from Washington.

Sarah Palin took some grief for bluntly stating that she was not going to answer the question she was asked, but was going to talk about what she chose. The difference here was that Obama and McCain didn’t acknowledge that that’s what they were going to do. They just did it and by the time you get to the end of the answer, you don’t remember the question.

P.S. If you wonder (I don’t guess you do) whether liberals and conservatives have sorted themselves out according to which cable news networks they watch, Fox News took an unscientific survey by texting on the question of who won the debate. It came out (at least the latest tally I saw) McCain 86, Obama 12.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by NIcole Masika on 10/08/2008 - 11:37 am.

    According to Obama’s answer, we need to sacrifice some comfort and convenience by conserving energy. You’ve got it right up there in black & white! While he is not totally innocent of not fully answering questions, he did much better than McCain, and the question you’ve shown here does show a good answer on Obama’s part.

  2. Submitted by Byron & Karyl Rice on 10/08/2008 - 01:05 pm.

    Mr. Black,

    Thank you for your continued thoughtful coverage. Regarding last night’s debate, I was offended when Senator McCain referred to Senator Obama as “that one”. I thought the comment was, at the very least, disrespectful and came very close to being a bigoted remark.

  3. Submitted by Jim Meyer on 10/08/2008 - 01:48 pm.

    Although I appreciate day-after fact-checking of claims and debates, why don’t we combine pro sports excitement with debate drama and have on-the-spot officiating. If Jeopardy! (and Michael Moore) can do it, so can Jim Lehrer and a ready team of net researchers and experts. Non-answering would be a relatively minor penalty: “Delay of Claim,” 15 seconds deducted from a future response time. For outright falsifications or undignified conduct, deduct even more time from future responses, take them away completely, or give the offended side a free minute to make any point they wish in or outside the pre-planned questions. (Like a penalty shot in hockey, right Governor?) Frankly, I prefer deducting time additively; Last night’s misery would have been over at half-time.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/08/2008 - 02:27 pm.

    If corporate-directed moderators like George Stephanapoulous hadn’t frozen Dennis Kucinich out of most of the questions asked at early Democratic debates, we might actually have heard a candidate respond to the question about government spending by saying that he would use 2% of the defense budget to establish a cabinet level Department of Peace to address, mostly through education, the various forms of violence that permeate our society — from schoolyard bullying to domestic abuse to pre-emptive war, torture, and imprisonment forever without charge.

    He’d probably be planning to close at least 745 of the 750 military bases we have around the world and give up the job of World Policeman and Spreader of Democracy and Capitalism. He’d no doubt also cancel the illegal and immoral nuclear, space and cyberspace weapons we have in development. Wow. Talk about saving UNTOLD BILLIONS of dollars per year to use instead to provide universal single payer health care to every person in America.

    I hope President Obama talks often with Dennis K.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/08/2008 - 09:02 pm.

    I’m with you on being frustrated with candidates ignoring the questions…. but unfortunately, as you know:

    1. they’ve been trained to do that by their handlers. “stick to your talking points!”

    2. no one holds them accountable IN THE MOMENT for answering the question. So the moderator and the audience are complicit in the non answer.

    It is really disrespectful to the questioner and to the audience, for the candidates to blow off the questions.

    Maybe if the candidate fails to answer the question they should forfeit some time or “miss a turn.”

  6. Submitted by Kevin Judd on 10/08/2008 - 11:54 pm.

    Candidates ignore questions that will alienate one of their constituencies. Think of Biden’s answer in the V.P. debate to the Gay Marriage question; any direct answer will infuriate (i.e. lose the votes of) a constituency, so he doesn’t answer the question (until the third try) but gives a discourse on tolerance and fairness (knowing that a large part of his constituency will consider his stance intolerant and unfair).

    The best forum I have seen for getting direct questions is a one-on-one interview with a moderate interviewer who asks followup questions. Think Saddleback Forum, where the moderator pins the candidates down. “If you believe X, why did you vote for Y”. I don’t think this would work in a debate setting. And it is a tricky issue for legislators, who do have to vote on omnibus bills.

  7. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/09/2008 - 10:05 am.

    This debate was abyssmal, because:
    1. The format stunk — and really did not allow for responses or true dialog
    2. Time constraints make it impossible to discuss complex issues in two minutes, with any substance
    3. Brokaw was just terrible in the way he conducted the debate, and his evident bias toward McCain which was sadly unprofessional

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