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

Setting cynicism aside for a nanosecond: A discussion of substance is impractical on so many levels.

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.
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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?

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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?)

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2. Who attacks The Donald?

3. How tightly is the debate moderated?

4. Is Jeb Bush rusty?