Debate Night: When the Questions Count as Much as the Answers

BY Gwen Ifill  September 23, 2011 at 12:45 PM EST

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry; photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
If you are a political junkie like me, there can never be too many candidates’ debates. FOX? CNN? MSNBC? Have at it. The more they talk, the more we learn.

But as someone who has gotten the chance to moderate a debate or two, or three, I find myself focusing on the questioners – the handful of journalists and commentators who get to steer the conversation.

In Jim Lehrer’s new book “Tension City,” he describes the 11 presidential and vice presidential debates he has moderated and a few he hasn’t. And he captures what most people miss — that for the man or woman running the show, posing questions at a debate is like walking a knife’s blade.

The candidates can bash each other and bash you. They can answer the questions or avoid them. But only the moderator is required to be fair, accurate and even-handed.

This is an even tougher task when there are eight or nine candidates on the stage — many of them unlikely to survive even the first party primary.

Nine candidates faced off again Thursday on a stage for a FOX-sponsored event in Orlando, Fla. I think I know what the moderators went through.

It’s tough to be sure when a question will lead to a dead end; when it will come across as a gimmick; or when you will simply trip over your tongue trying to get the words out.

Given all these potential pitfalls, I offer my favorite questions from the three debates we have consumed since August.

Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty; photo by Charlie Neibergall/Pool-Getty ImagesSome questions turn out to be prescient. At the Aug. 11 Iowa debate, prior to the straw poll, FOX’s Chris Wallace asked former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (pictured at right) why he was attacking fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann for lacking what he called a “record of accomplishment.”

“Is she unqualified, or is she just beating you in the polls?” Wallace asked. Pawlenty pushed back, but three days later, he dropped out of the race after Bachmann won the straw poll.

At that same debate, Byron York from the Washington Examiner used another arrow from the moderator’s quiver: holding a candidate to his record.

Citing Mitt Romney’s history of raising new revenues while he was governor of Massachusetts to bolster the Bay State’s credit rating, York asked: “Doesn’t this show that sometimes raising taxes is necessary?”

That was a zinger of a question in a “no-taxes-are-good-taxes” environment. The down side: Romney sidestepped the question by emphasizing spending cuts. The up side: voters now had new facts to work with.

Just under a month later in Simi Valley, Calif., NBC’s Brian Williams and Politico’s John Harris (pictured at right) had the task of introducing a new candidate to the audience.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry — newly arrived on the debate stage was the night’s resident “piñata.” Why, Harris asked, did one quarter of Texas residents not have health insurance — the weakest percentage in the nation? “That’s 50 out of 50, dead last,” Harris said. “Sir, it’s pretty hard to defend dead last.”

Perry responded by attacking Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan instead, so Harris did what many debate formats do not allow. He followed up. “Why are so many people in Texas uninsured?” he asked flatly.

Perry blamed the federal government.

In the same meeting, NBC’s Williams highlighted the consequences of political rhetoric when he quizzed Texas Congressman Ron Paul on where he would draw the line in abolishing government regulation.

“Would you then put it on the drug companies to say, ‘No we’re putting this to market, trust us, it’s a fantastic drug?’” he asked.

Paul’s response: drug company lobbyists write the regulations that become law anyway, so why not let the private sector regulate itself? Once again, illuminating.

Sometimes the best questions don’t start with the moderators at all. At the CNN/Tea Party debate in Tampa on Sept. 12, Bridget Melson of the Pleasanton Tea Party asked how the candidates would balance the budget and cut spending without compromising her mother’s retirement.

But it was CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (pictured at right) who sharpened the question – asking the candidates whether they would repeal a $1 trillion dollar prescription drug benefit that expanded the nation’s deficit spending.

The question went to four of the candidates – Rick Santorum, Perry, Romney and Paul – each of whom has condemned unbridled spending and unfunded mandates.

But would they actually repeal this one? The answer was no.

That’s why I like it when the right questions are asked. Sure, you’ll get talking points and attacks. But every once in awhile if you listen closely, and get past the bells and whistles, you might find an answer that helps you decide who you might want to vote for. Or not.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

Top photo: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry during a debate on September 12. Photo by AFP/Getty.