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Stop Asking Candidates 'Tough' Questions

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to Eric Ostermeier at Smart Politics for noting one excellent development in last night's debate: CNN's moderators took up a lot less time than their counterparts at Fox News did last month.

Ostermeier calculates that Jake Tapper, Hugh Hewitt and Dana Bash spent just 16 percent of air time talking -- compared with a whopping 32 percent for Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. As he concludes: "Despite CNN hosting a much longer debate than the one broadcast on FOX in early August, CNN moderators spoke for nearly seven fewer minutes."

The CNN crew had its weaknesses. Rather than asking straight questions on policy, for example, Tapper too often pushed the candidates into direct confrontations. An example:

TAPPER: Senator Cruz, Governor Kasich says that anyone who is promising to rip up the Iran deal on day one, as you have promised to do, is, quote, “inexperienced,” and, quote, “playing to a crowd.” Respond to Governor Kasich, please.

But at least this exchange raised a substantive issue. 

On Twitter, several people I follow complained that Tapper wasn't as "tough" on the candidates as the Fox crew was in the  debate last month.  That's misguided. The job of debate moderators is to get the candidates to talk about matters important to voters and to those involved in party politics. It isn't to confront or criticize the candidates, or to hold them accountable in some way. There are times when it's appropriate for journalists to do this, but debates are about the candidates and what they want to do if elected; if the candidates need to be critiqued, that's the job of their competitors. 

The main complaint (one I repeated last night) about the debate was its exhausting length. Yes, it was too long for the handful of us whose professional obligations required that we pay attention for five hours straight. But normal people don't have to do that; they will see the highlights later, so it didn't matter if they flipped over to a ballgame at some point.  

For political parties, meanwhile, debates have the useful function of pushing candidates to make explicit commitments on the issues. If a candidate deviates from accepted orthodoxy on one policy or another, it gives party actors important information for making choices. And if candidates echo party positions, that's good to know too because politicians tend to keep their promises. Since debates are a method of binding candidates closer to their party's agenda, the more information the better. By that standard, five hours seemed just right.

  1. Yes, Tapper took some heat for following CNN's 2012 practice of tossing in a couple of goofy oddball questions -- this time, one on what the candidate wanted for a Secret Service codename and another on selecting a woman to appear on currency. But what's wrong with adding some offbeat human interest-type questions? Again, the aim is to generate information, not be tough on the candidates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net