The questions in Wednesday night’s Republican presidential candidate debate on CNN weren’t exactly great. Throughout the evening, the moderators framed them to encourage the candidates to criticize each others’ positions on the issues (or nonissues) rather than addressing the issues themselves. “Others disagree with you. What do you think?!” seems to be CNN’s modus operandi. That interrogative strategy might work on Twitter or on The Lead, but it’s reasonable to hope that the questions in a presidential debate would be a little more deft.
Here are some of the weaker queries we heard through the first 90 minutes, along with suggestions of what the moderators should have asked instead.
Jake Tapper’s question: “Governor Bush, you recently said while discussing Planned Parenthood, quote, you’re not sure we need a half billion for women’s health issues, but Donald Trump said that, quote, that comment which Hillary Clinton did seize upon immediately will haunt you the way Mitt Romney’s 47 percent video hunted him. Tell him why he’s wrong.”
Better question: “Governor Bush, you recently said while discussing Planned Parenthood, quote, you’re not sure we need a half billion for women’s health issues, but Donald Trump said that, quote, that comment which Hillary Clinton did seize upon immediately will haunt you the way Mitt Romney’s 47 percentvideo haunted him. Mr. Trump, how much money and attention would your administration devote to women’s health issues?”
Hugh Hewitt’s question: “Mr. Trump, two years ago, president Obama drew a red line that the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad crossed and President Obama threatened to strike. He did not. Knees buckled. Syria is a living hell and he turned to Congress to back him up. You have three senators to your right that said no. Do they bear responsibility for this refugee crisis and what would you have done when Assad crossed the line?”
Better question: “What would you do now about the refugee crisis?” (Why ask a counterfactual when you can ask a question that would encourage the candidates to talk about what’s happening now and how they might try to fix it?)
Jake Tapper’s question: “I want to turn to Governor Huckabee. You held a rally for a clerk in Kentucky jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. You said that’s the example of criminalization of Christianity there are several people on the stage that disagree with you. Governor Bush for example says that clerk is sworn to uphold the law. Is Governor Bush on the wrong side of the law of Christianity?”
Better question: “Every person on this stage is a Christian, every president we’ve ever had is a Christian, most of the people in this country identify as Christians. Do you really think that Christianity is in imminent danger of being criminalized?”
Dana Bash’s question: “Senator Cruz, on this stage not that long ago Senator Graham said this tactic you’re pushing [shutting down the government] would tank the Republicans’ ability to win in 2016.”
Better question: “Senator Cruz, on this stage not that long ago Senator Graham said this tactic you’re pushing [shutting down the government] would tank the Republicans’ ability to win in 2016. Can you explain why forcing a government shutdown would be good for the Republicans, and good for the country?”
Jake Tapper to Ben Carson: “[Scott Walker] called raising the federal minimum wage ‘lame.’ What do you think of that?” (This is a weak question because it’s framed in such a way that Carson doesn’t have to feel obliged to say what he actually thinks about the federal minimum wage. He might get there on his own, but he doesn’t look like he’s dodging anything if he doesn’t.)
Better question: “[Scott Walker] called raising the federal minimum wage ‘lame.’ Can you tell him why it isn’t?”
Hugh Hewitt’s question: “I want to talk about winning because I think all of you were more qualified than Sen. Clinton was in the first debate. Carly Fiorina and Gov. Kasich, you’ve been on my show a lot and refuse to attack Hillary Clinton, you don’t want to do that. I like that. Carly Fiorina, I don’t have to bring up the secretary of state, you bring her up. Which one of you is wrong? Governor Kasich?” (This question is weak because it’s a question about campaign strategies, and “Why do you think your rhetorical strategy is better than this other candidate’s strategy?” is boring and premature at this point in the campaign.)
Better question: “Carly Fiorina and Gov. Kasich, your respective eagerness and reluctance to attack Hillary Clinton at this stage in the campaign indicates two very different leadership and management styles. Can you characterize your individual leadership and management philosophies, and explain why yours would be best for the country?”
Jake Tapper’s question: “Governor Christie, we marked the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Dr. Carson has said that if he had been president at the time, the United States would not have gone to war in Afghanistan. What does that say to you about how Dr. Carson would respond as president if America were attacked again?” (This question is of the “fight amongst yourselves” variety. By encouraging candidates to speculate on how another candidate might respond to some hypothetical incident if elected, questions like these give candidates license to be really insubstantial and vague.)
Better question: “Governor Christie, we marked the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, attacks that were carried out by Muslim extremists. Earlier this week, a Muslim teenager in Texas was arrested in his school after his teachers mistook a homemade clock that he made for a bomb. As president, how would you balance security and tolerance?”