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Better Questions Make Better Debates

Tevi Troy

Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate sponsored by POLITICO and NBC News is shaping up as a big one.

First, it’s being held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. So, Reagan’s shadow will surely loom literally and metaphorically — which is no small thing as he’s still seen as the single most unifying figure in the Republican Party.

Additionally, it’s the first debate appearance of the surging Texas governor, Rick Perry, who’s overtaking the presumptive front-runner, Mitt Romney. Add the skilled debater Michelle Bachmann and there could be fireworks.

Still, the standard debate format is not the best forum for gaining a better understanding of these candidates. Debates too often tend to be parallel press conferences, in which candidates do not engage each other on issues and principles so much as try to highlight their opponents’ past misstatements, perceived flip flops, or deviations from various orthodoxies. And the media are complicit in this by asking fairly predictable questions.

So, the candidates generally prepare for the debates in terms of issue sets, with briefing books organized by policy category: taxes, health care, Iraq and the like. This allows the candidates to lay out their policy accomplishments and preferences in each category and highlight the vulnerabilities of their opponents but does little to promote a broader understanding of the way candidates think about issues or how they will react to unpredictable events not outlined in the briefing books. The Bush-Gore debates in 2000, for example, gave us no insight into how either candidate would have reacted to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the next year.

In this debate, the moderators should discard their traditional “gotcha” questions. No one cares why a candidate said X in 2010 versus Y in 2009. Instead, journalists should focus on some key philosophical questions that get to the heart of what it means to be a conservative in 2011 and how that might shape the decisions a candidate might make as president.

In other words, the path to the most informed and engaging debate is to ask concise, direct and simple questions. For instance:

What books have shaped your world view?

Candidates often are ready for the question of what books they are reading now — usually serious works of biography, history or current events. Asking about the books that have shaped them would offer a better sense of their thinking, and how they would approach unpredictable events.

Which presidential portraits would you put up in the White House, and how would their examples guide your presidency?

William F. Buckley posed this question to the Democratic and Republican candidates in separate primary debates in 1988 because he believed that it would provide a profound insight into a candidate would approach the presidency. Among Reagan’s choices was a little known president, Calvin Coolidge, who believed in limited government, the duty of public servants, the power of free markets and the ability of the American people to solve problems themselves. Sound familiar?

What is the role of the Constitution in modern America?

For more than a century after our nation’s founding, the main purpose of the president’s inaugural address was to discuss the role of the Constitution in our government. Presidents would explicate key constitutional principles, focus on how they would execute their responsibilities to support and defend the Constitution and explain how they saw their mission in the context of the nation’s primary document. This question would reveal how the candidates approach fundamental questions about governing.

How has Sept. 11 changed our country, and how would you try to change our current balance between liberty and security?

More than anything, our reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security have shown that current policies are not inevitable or permanent and that politics and external events can have a significant impact on the shape or our government and our society. Determining candidates’ views on the question of liberty versus security will give us a better sense of who the candidates are than their views on narrower questions such as the appropriate level of homeland security funding.

Is health care a right?

This question goes beyond insults and one-liners about “Obamacare” and circumvents the talking points in a candidate’s debate preparation. It would go to the heart of the health care debate we as a nation need to have.

Of course, the temptation among the questioners will be to dismiss these kinds of questions, because for a journalist it would mean stepping out of the limelight to let the debate be about the candidates. These questions, however, would challenge the candidates to answer substantively and personally and make great television — and a great debate.

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