Why it’s naive to expect policy substance at the GOP debate

Republican presidential candidates, left to right: Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, bottom row left to right: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and John Kasich.

Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport took the latest polling on what Americans consider to be the top problems facing the country and turned them into a list of 11 questions for tonight’s debate that he called “If the American People were running the GOP debate.”

Things like (these are the first three on the list):

First question: How do you propose to fix the U.S. economy?

Second question: How do you propose to deal with the people’s record-low confidence in Congress and the elected representatives they send to Washington?

Third question: What do you propose to do about race relations in this country?

It’s kind of a sweet, touching exercise rooted in the willfully naive notion that people want policy specifics so they can assess whose proposals would be most effective in addressing the challenges our country faces.

It’s also impractical, I fear, on so many levels. It’s a two-hour debate with 10 candidates. Subtract the time spent on intros and outros, opening and closing statements and time spent asking questions, and you wouldn’t get through many questions like those even if everyone followed the rules, which they wouldn’t.

It also assumes that a typical viewer could understand and assess comparatively one candidate’s one-minute answer on how to “fix the U.S. economy” (which, by the way, although I wouldn’t expect any of the candidates to mention, has been one of the most successful in the world during the Obama years) versus another candidate’s one-minute version, without the opportunity to ask follow-ups. If you were to allow only the most reasonable follow-ups that would be necessary for viewers to truly grasp the differences between candidates’ economic plans — assuming they each have one — you would probably never get past Newport’s first question.

On the other hand, even with the best of intentions, if a candidate were to say “simplify the tax code” or “cut wasteful spending,” it’s almost the same as saying nothing, unless you are prepared to refer viewers to the full answer available on the candidate’s website.

Of course it’s unreasonable to think that this could be accomplished, even if everyone had the best intentions, in a TV show. It should be possible, if someone really wanted to pursue the idea, to go to the candidates’ websites and find their economic (and immigration and race relations) positions spelled out, but if you try you won’t have much luck finding them. (Here’s the home page of Donald Trump’s campaign website. Good luck to you.)

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog also has a piece up today headlined “11 questions that tonight’s Republican presidential debate will answer.” (Note: not “should” answer.)

Here are the first four of Cillizza’s questions:

1. WWDD (What Will Donald Do?)

2. Who attacks The Donald?

3. How tightly is the debate moderated?

4. Is Jeb Bush rusty?

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/06/2015 - 03:35 pm.

    Here’s a little game democrats can play

    Every time one of the candidates is asked a question, try to imagine how Mrs. Clinton would have answered it. Or Barack Obama as far as that goes.

    I would play the game but I have no idea how she would answer any of the three questions here or any others for that matter. Maybe you’ll have a better idea.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/07/2015 - 07:48 am.

    Tsk, tsk…

    I suspect that, if Mr. Tester actually wanted answers, he could go to the Clinton website himself to find them. Lacking that, he’ll just have to wait, since there have been no “national TV debates” on the Democratic side of which I’m aware.

    Mr. Obama’s responses, of course, would be – or are – irrelevant, since he’s not a candidate for the presidency in 2016, or for any other office. Funny/odd that Mr. Tester would include Obama when he’s not running.

    I agree that “playing the game” is largely pointless right now, but that, I believe, is the focus of Eric’s piece. At this stage of the game, candidates are mostly trying for recognition (saying outrageous things often works well in that context), and expecting substantive, or even reasonable, answers, is probably not realistic.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 08/07/2015 - 08:45 am.

    Taking shots is easy & boring

    Blindly criticizing the other side is boring. What would be interesting is commentary from the tight explaining how the debate informed their opinion of the camdidates. Did you learn something new? Did you change your opinions on one or more candidates? Who was up there but shouldn’t be? Who was missing?

    According to reports I’ve seen, Fiorina exceeded expectations. Will she get a boost & move to the top tier? Walker went nearly unmentioned. Has he peaked? If my Facebook feed means anything, Carson is gaining ground.

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