What’s the most important presidential debate question?

Bring on the hot wings and beer. My favorite contact sport event is coming up October 3.  I hope it’ll inspire tailgate parties all over the country.

No, I haven’t become a football fan after years of avoiding it. I’m talking about the first presidential debate. It should be required watching for all voters—that would be a far better qualification for voting than requiring picture identification.

What if you were the debate moderator, what do you think would be the most important question you’d ask?

Politico’s Arena, where I post regularly, asked about that yesterday, and also quizzed the panel on whether voters should expect fireworks or calm, polished debate. I wondered, what fun would it be without some fireworks. PBS’s Jim Lehrer will moderate this debate, the first of two debates between the presidential candidates.

I’m sure there will be many questions about their respective economic plans, as there should be. But in my response, I addressed the way questions are asked as well as the content.

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Most of the time when I’m cheering and booing from the debate sidelines, I’m annoyed with the moderators’ softball questions that have too little follow up to get the candidates beyond their talking points.

Voters deserve a reasoned, polished debate, but also one that forces Obama and Romney to elucidate their most passionate convictions. That requires the moderator to frame questions specifically, not in general terms. And then to ask the second question, or the third follow up if necessary to get to the nut of each candidate’s answer.

For example, candidates will undoubtedly be asked their positions on women’s reproductive rights, health, and justice. But usually the questions are framed as being only about abortion rather than the full spectrum of access to women’s health and who gets to make childbearing decisions—women or politicians. As Carole Joffe, author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars and UC Davis professor emeritus, explains in her recent post “Debate Questions That Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan Need to Be Asked” :

“[H]ow the question is phrased and how much pushback a moderator is willing to do to with evasive candidates are very crucial. For example, a moderator who simply asks Romney, in general terms, to comment on his well-known changing views on abortion will set the latter up for a platitudinous answer about ‘realizing that this is a difficult issue for many’ and that his own views have ‘evolved.’ Such a broad question will not be as effective in communicating to the audience what actually are the policy stakes in this election…for Mitt Romney, his eager endorsement of a Personhood Amendment took place only a year ago — and therefore is much more relevant to voters than his flip-flopping on abortion that took place after his 1994 Senate run.”

What frustrates debate viewers more than whether there are fireworks or calm discussions is whether the moderators ask the hard questions and keep probing until the candidates give meaningful answers. I have much more faith in Candy Crowley to be an incisive moderator than I have in the more phlegmatic Jim Lehrer.

Will you be watching with me on October 3?

What question will you be hoping Lehrer asks?

1 Comment

  1. Aletha on October 3, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    I imagine there will be some question related to abortion in one of the debates, but most questions I would like to hear I expect will remain off the table, since the candidates agree too closely on them. One example pertinent to the debate tonight, amid all the bickering over deficits and wasteful spending, is how does maintaining the strongest military the world has ever known, as Obama puts it, benefit anybody outside the military-industrial complex? Our politicians can bluster all they want about how our military keeps us safe, but I beg to differ. Just as trying to keep up with us in the arms race shattered the Soviet Union, the US economy is teetering on the edge of a similar abyss, in no small measure because of all the money wasted on military supremacy. Certainly the rampant financial speculation played its part, but the deregulation of the financial industry that allowed that to happen, which Democrats love to blame on George Bush, was initiated by Bill Clinton.

    I hate to agree with mainstream pundits, but I have to agree Romney put on a strong performance tonight. Not that I agreed with hardly anything he said, but he was on his game.

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