Sorry, Leo McGarry, it’s ok to accept premise of the question

There is a quote I couldn’t get out of my head last night during the vice presidential debate.

No, it wasn’t from John McEnroe.

Instead, it was from my daughter’s absolute favorite, has-the-full-CD-set, has-seen-the-entire-series-10-times show The West Wing. In The Ticket (Season 7, Episode 1), longtime chief of staff Leo McGarry is now the vice presidential candidate to young would-be Bartlet successor Matthew Santos. McGarry is walking a rope line as reporters are shouting questions.

He ends up taking a question and butchering it, which goes against the advice given to him by his handler, Annabeth Schott: “If you don’t like what they’re asking you, don’t accept the premise of the question,” directed Schott, played by Kristen Chenoweth.

Of course, this isn’t some novel idea in politics. And we certainly saw it on display last night. But I’m here to at least shine a light on how the premises of tough questions (or heck, even easy questions) CAN be accepted without hurting a candidate.

Let’s start with Sen. Harris, who was asked about her primary campaign pledge to ban fracking juxtaposed against Vice President Biden’s statement that he would not ban fracking.

Instead of dodging her past statements in opposition, what if she had said this:

“Thanks for the question and it’s a good one. Yes, Joe and I have a different view on this. And guess what — there are other things about which Joe and I disagree. Is that the litmus test for running mates, that they have to agree with everything the person at the top of the ticket espouses? That’s not how friendships work. That’s not how marriages work. Well, this is a political marriage. My job is to support my spouse and he to support me. That includes times when we have a different view on something. Senator Kaine’s job was to support the policies of Sen. Clinton if she had been elected and mine is to support the policies of Vice President Biden. I think we have an electorate mature enough to handle a ticket that isn’t in some sort of imaginary state of constant agreement. In my real-life marriage, disagreement with my spouse has made our marriage stronger, not weaker. I’ve changed his mind on things and vice versa. And when we retain conflicting views, we learn to do so agreeably and respectfully, which is a quality I consider to be much more valuable than being sycophantic. Yes, I am personally for banning fracking. President Biden is not. That means the Biden-Harris administration will not ban fracking.”

How about Pence being asked about what a Roe v. Wade reversal would mean in his home state of Indiana. Here was Page’s question: “If Roe V. Wade was overturned what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?” Conspicuously, Pence did not answer, presumably because he doesn’t want to say he would make abortions illegal or doesn’t believe he should.

What if Pence had answered like this: “I have a strong pro-life view on abortion. I want to do everything I can to reduce the number of abortions in America. But I understand this is one of these 50-50 issues. If I was leading an Indiana discussion on what do in a post-Roe v. Wade world I would first seek to find where we could find the most common ground — later term abortions, parental consent and the like. Hopefully, everybody is in favor of reducing the number of abortions. That sounds like a good place to start. You know, this smart guy named Skip Foster has a great new blog — — and he recently wrote about a new study that shows “pro-life” and “pro-choice” don’t adequately describe the views of most Americans on this issue. I would want to lead a discussion of how we can see where there is the most agreement and make sure we also consider the laws of unintended consequences.”

Yeah, I know, maybe unrealistic for someone beholden to a pro-life base, but he clearly wasn’t prepared to say “Indiana should ban all abortions.” I would rather him at least try to fashion an answer to the question that is honest than simply move on to some other topic, which is what he did.

A big unanswered questions was directed to Sen. Kamala Harris about “packing” the Supreme Court by adding seats to offset recent and prospective appointments of conservative judges. Vice President Pence asked her during one of his responses although I’m sure it was also on the question list of moderator Susan Page.

Harris (and Biden in the first debate) didn’t even pretend to answer the question, which is clearly one of the most important of the campaign — adding seats to the Court would change 150 years of American tradition, which isn’t to say it’s a good or bad idea, only that it’s a BIG deal.

So, what’s wrong with this answer:

“Thanks, Susan and I’m going to be honest with you, Vice President Biden and I simply haven’t decided where we stand on this. We know it’s a big deal. We know it’s a huge shift in American policy and tradition. And we know the American people deserve an answer on this before the election, especially since so many people have already voted. I promise that by October X, we will hold a press conference and share our position on this matter, either way. Voters deserve to know where we stand on this important issue.”

Honestly, I don’t see how running out the clock on this question is tenable.

Finally, there is one scenario where I think at least delaying an answer to a question would have been appropriate. Think about how powerful it would have been if Pence had opened up the debate this way: “Thanks Susan and thanks to the debate commission. I’m going to answer your question, but first I want to say this. It has taken us far too long to have a woman of color on this stage. Senator Harris, your accomplishments have been breathtaking and the history of this moment should not be lost on any of us. We have a long way to go in this country and on this planet when it comes to providing opportunity for all, but you are living proof that we also have much of which to be proud. I just want to congratulate you on this ground-breaking accomplishment and salute you for success.”

Eat your heart out, John McEnroe!

Skip’s debate takes: Moderators and mute buttons

So, you don’t need me to provide another take on the performance of the two candidates. But, as someone who has done quite a bit of moderating of local forums and debates (albeit for much, much, much lower stakes than a presidential debate), I would like to defend those who think Chris Wallace could have done more to stop the train wreck.

I thought he did everything possible to keep things in line. I thought his questions for both candidates were tough and fair. To wit, he held Trump to account on the question of white supremacy and confronted Biden directly on packing the court. And, even given all the interrupting and insults, other policy ground was covered.

The fact that my Twitter timeline featured pretty equal complaining about his impartiality from D’s and R’s tells me he ended up down the middle. Mainly, I thought he fought valiantly to maintain order. To those who thought he should have done more in that regard, my question is: How?

Remember, moderators have no power except the microphone in front of them. And these are pretty important, strong personalities standing on the stage. I thought Wallace was as strong as he could be attempting to control the candidates.

I also want to address the suggestions that moderators should be able to “mute the microphone” as some sort of debate elixir. I’m not so sure about that, as it may allow the Law of Unintended Consequences to raise its head.

Question: Wasn’t the interrupting actually part of the content of the debate? Isn’t seeing how the candidate interact and behave under pressure important, just like their positions on policies? Can you imagine the pushback on a moderator when he/she actually uses the mute button to silence a candidate for leader of the free world?

Let’s look at it from another angle: If Trumps’ interruptions and rudeness were why he lost the debate, why would a Biden supporter want that essentially hidden from debate watchers? Also, is it really realistic to turn debates into a no-interruption zone? I mean, clearly there were TONS of interruptions last night, but that’s not to say there haven’t been any interruptions in debates over the last decades — some of them illuminating and newsworthy.

I understand and share the desire for the types of debates that we all want, but the reality is, utilizing a mute button would likely lead to more problems than it solves. And it actually might provide cover for those who are unable to restrain themselves during debates, perhaps masking a character flaw for which they should be evaluated by voters.

15Matthew Foster, Jon R. Frazier and 13 others5 Comments