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Ten Questions for Republicans That Aren't Gotchas

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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The mini-tantrums from Republican candidates about the debates have sparked a whole bunch of suggestions about how to improve the formats.

A little variety would be welcome. But a basic improvement can be made right now, in time for the GOP debate Tuesday night on Fox Business channel. Like Vox’s Matt Yglesias, I want hear fewer “tough” questions and more “softballs.”

Yglesias rightly prefers questions about public policy, rather than gotchas about a candidate’s personal history or on his or her flip-flopping.  Questions about issues rather than about politics are far more helpful to the audiences (whether the voters or the more involved party actors).  

But in addition, I wish moderators would ask some questions about process, not about the campaign, but about "presidenting" -- that is, the art of being president.

After all, little separates most Republican candidates on government policies. To the extent they honestly differ, it's likely that constraints from Congress and other political players will tend to make those differences irrelevant (the same is true for Democratic contenders). For example, even if Marco Rubio's proposed tax cuts are much larger than Jeb Bush's, both men would wind up supporting and signing whatever tax cut they could get from Congress.  So how a president deals with Congress will matter as much as or more than the specific details of his or her current proposals.

Here are some suggested questions along this line:

1. Of the hundreds of jobs a president has to fill,  which positions would you spend the most time in finding the right candidate for?

2. In selecting your cabinet and other executive-branch officials, what is more important: Finding people who will be strong advocates within their agencies for your policies, or finding people with extensive expertise in the subject matter, or finding excellent managers?  

3. On the issue of diversity in your administration, what types of backgrounds, if any, do you think have been underrepresented in government?

4. What specific institutional remedies do you plan to use to avoid “groupthink” -- the tendency of advisers to converge on the same solutions and ignore evidence that contradicts those solutions? 

5. What’s the most effective way to persuade Congress to pass a bill you believe is important when initial vote counts suggest the support isn't there? 

6. After Republicans achieved a House majority in 2011, Barack Obama at first appeared to put emphasis on reaching agreements with Republicans. But since his re-election, he seems to have sought ways to achieve his goals without legislation -- through executive orders, for example. If you are faced with divided government, would you try harder to work with the opposition party or would you rely on non-legislative ways to get your agenda adopted?

7. Obama and other recent presidents have greatly expanded the White House communications office. Is that a waste of resources, and would you cut it? Or is important for staying in touch with voters, and will you expand it?

8. What other divisions of the White House staff should be expanded or contracted?

9. What’s an example of a disastrous policy that was the result of bad management? What would you do to prevent those kind of mistakes?

10. Presidents have been holding fewer formal press conferences. Would you commit to regular press conferences, at least once a month? If not, what alternative will you commit to, to hold your administration accountable?

  1. Also see Mischiefs of Faction's Hans Noel on why parties and candidates have different goals for debates.

  2. Remember, these aren't supposed to be "tough" questions. The goal is to encourage candidates to discuss the general topic. The questions are possible to duck (for this one, by answering "all of the above!"). But a candidate who has thought about the question might say quite a bit more.

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