Good Debate, Bad Debate

Drunk BloggingWell, the Republican debate is coming up. I hope you are excited! As you read this, I am at the county fair being impressed by the local arts and crafts. But for those looking forward to the debate, Jonathan Bernstein reminds you, How Debate Moderators Get It Wrong. And he makes an excellent point, which explains why I won’t be watching: debates should be about introducing candidates to the public. It isn’t about the moderators — or people like me who are very well informed about what all these fools are campaigning on. Actually, it makes me feel better about missing it, because I would only be there for the worst reasons.

According to Bernstein, there are basically only two kinds of questions that should be asked at debates:

  1. What policies the candidates support on the various issues
  2. What they think about things as a way of finding who they are as people

He thinks that “gotcha,” tactical, current event, and attack invitation questions are all invalid. I agree. For one thing, “gotcha” questions are almost always about “flip-flopping” and those are just stupid. The current events are horrible. I’m sure there will be lots of questions about Planned Parenthood, and all they really come down to is the policy question: each and every one of them believes abortion should be illegal. What Planned Parenthood did or did not do has nothing to do with it. As for attacking other candidates, that’s just silly, because they don’t need an excuse to do that.

But there is no doubt that policy questions could be a whole lot better. For example, on the abortion issue, I would very much like it if we could get all the candidates on record. They are all anti-choice, of course. But do they believe in abortion in the case of rape? What about life of the mother? This last one is critical, because if you don’t believe in a life of the mother exception, you really do just hate women. In that case, there are competing rights and you are coming down squarely on the side of an unborn baby. But I’d like to know if any of them would go that far. I think Carson might. And so too might Huckabee. Maybe others. I don’t know. But let’s nail that down.

But there won’t be anything like that. It would tell the audience something for them to go down the line. They could ask, “Are you pro-life?” And they would answer: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But it will be worse than that. They will all get away with rhetoric like, “I always am going to err on the side of life. I believe life is precious. I have been in the pro-life camp since I was a teenager.” So within the framework that Bernstein has put out, you could have a very good, informative debate; and you could have an awful one.

As for the personal stories — who is behind the candidate — I guess I disagree with Bernstein about that one. At one time, that might have been fine. But today, in the world of constant polling and focus groups, that’s all so managed as to mean nothing. If every campaign had an official comic strip, it would say more about the candidates than the “narratives” their campaigns sell.

I hope the debate is good. I’m sure I’ll see parts of it. I may even watch the whole thing later if it sounds like it is worth it. But it isn’t worth doing on spec. And I really deserve this day off. I’ve been promising myself for weeks.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “Good Debate, Bad Debate

  1. First of all, I’m pro-choice. If someone is going to argue against abortions from a religious position, I think they must not allow an exception for the life of the mother. I don’t agree with that, but from a religious point of view, allowing such an exception would be taking God’s decision about who dies into your own hands, which would be presumptuous to say the least. Again, I believe that the decision should be the mother’s.

    • I agree on that point regarding rape and birth defects. Otherwise, abortion is just about punishing women for having sex. But what you are suggesting here is a Christian Science approach: that everything should be left to God. Ultimately, even Christian conservative arguments come down to rights: when should the government have an interest in protecting the fetus.

      By the way: I was wrong. This issue was dealt with. Megyn Kelly asked Scott Walker about his absolutist position on abortion. I don’t actually think any of them have thought their beliefs through. But then we know that abortion is a big right wing issue because of pure racism and pro-segregationist feeling in the leadership of the Christian right. So we shouldn’t be surprised.

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