The Spectacle Blog

Reductio ad abc-surdum

By on 4.17.08 | 11:07PM

Since Jim Fallows sums up my feelings on the Democratic debate I thought I'd make a couple narrow rebuttals. On this blog Phillip Klein defends ABC, writing, "If this were the first debate between the two candidates, I can understand the frustration, but given that this is the 21st debate, it's a different story. What kind of policy discussion is left to have among two candidates who agree on virtually everything?"

It is quite right that health care and Iraq have been fleshed out. But the president does all sorts of things that Senators Obama and Clinton are seldom if ever asked about. Tough questions I'd like to see include whether the candidates believe that the constitution in fact assigns only enumerated powers to the federal government, and if so what specific powers belong only to the states or the people; whether the candidates believe that the War on Drugs is winnable and how they would wage it or end it; and the candidates' views on the balance of power between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches during war time.

Another citizen might prefer that questions be asked on animal rights, maintaining the interstate highway system, the prudence of a regulated market for kidneys and the reasoning for our reliance on corn based rather than sugar based ethanol. There is no shortage of topics; moderators just confine themselves unnecessarily.

Enter David Brooks, defending the ABC debate moderators on different grounds. He says, echoing others, that "the journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable," and that it's legitimate to see how they'll respond to symbolic issues. If that is so, however, the moderators seemed to have failed for a different reason -- I can imagine the candidates being far less comfortable and being asked far more symbolic questions than what ABC mustered.

Perhaps a future debate should feature Brooks as moderator posing the following questions:

-- A black child, a white child and a Cuban refugee child are all drowning and you can only save two. Which two children do you save?

-- A terrorist makes a credible threat that he will detonate a nuclear device in Manhattan unless you engage in intercourse with the spouse of your opponent. Would you do so if your CIA chief estimated it would afford a 10 percent chance of averting the attack?

-- Were you widowed, terminally ill and raising a young child would you rather arrange for its adoption by a loving gay couple or a heterosexual spinster? Would you rather the child grow up to be gay or mildly homophobic but happily married with kids?

-- As president will you be more concerned with protecting American lives than the lives of foreigners? If so how many Israeli lives is an American life worth? What about Kenyan lives? Palestinian lives? Iraqi lives? And how does that last affect your Iraq policy?

-- If God spoke to you, as he spoke to some in biblical accounts, and told you to convert to Catholicism, would you? What about Islam? Mormonism? Scientology? What if he asked you to get a sex change operation?

-- Were a cure for AIDS developed that required the slaughter of 15,000 live puppies per year for a key ingredient would you approve their murder?

These questions may seem, and in fact are, utterly absurd, but I am serious in suggesting that if our measure of a good question is one that makes a candidate uncomfortable, tests their performance in a pressure filled situation and forces them to think on their feet, my questions are superior to ABC's, which is another way of saying that this metric for questions is fatally flawed.
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