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“Better Questions Make Better Debates” says Tevi Troy

September 9, 2011

As the bickering intensified at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library during Wednesday night’s Republican Presidential Primary debate, the moderators seemed determined to portray the candidates as bickering old fools.¬† Some of them probably are, but that’s for another time

Sadly, the debate largely skirted the differences in political philosophy between the candidates. Even Ron Paul–the indefatigable figure-head of the young Libertarians–focused more on policies than attributes of character or beliefs about governance. During one of the few mildly philosophical moments in the debate, Brian Williams–a moderator, not a candidate–rhetorically reprimanded the audience for applauding Rick Perry’s statement in support of the death penalty, asking Perry if he was disturbed by the roundly positive response (Perry took the applause in stride). Had Williams turned the applause into a serious discussion about notions of justice, the debate may have produced meaningful responses, but he had other policy questions to ask.

Tevi Troy

Tevi Troy challenges the debate moderators to pose philosophical questions.

Just days before the debate, Tevi Troy of Hudson Institute predicted this and presented his own list of questions in Politico (one of the debate’s sponsors). He recommended the moderators do away with the “gotcha” questions and,

“Instead, journalists should focus on some key philosophical questions that get to the heart of what it means to be a conservative in 2011 and how that might shape the decisions a candidate might make as president.”

For Mr. Troy, the problem is that gotcha questions typically result in “parallel press conferences” rather than meaty debates that tell voters something about what the candidates stand for. His solution: rather than asking the candidates what they would do about the health care bill, ask them “Is health care a right?” Rather than ask about the legitimacy of the President’s military adventures in Libya, ask “What is the role of the Constitution in modern America?”

We tend to blame candidates for evading questions, or carefully disclosing their beliefs, but those of us asking the questions bear a responsibility for setting the tone of the discussion. This goes for a presidential debate as much as it does for a class lecture or even a play. No author should blame his or her readers when the text fails to convey the intended message. That failure rests on the author’s pen and choice of style. For Tevi Troy, the failure to reveal significant insights into the candidates’ philosophies at Wednesday night’s debate should fall squarely on the moderators’ shoulders.

Grammar Lesson: Ever wonder why we teach our students to “pick a tense and stick to it” throughout their essays? After all, in truth, most authors combine a variety of tenses in order to make their writing more enjoyable. The reason is that tense is the most basic form of tone we have. Past, present, and future, tied with standard, intensive, progressive, and perfect forms and indicative, imperative, and subjunctive moods (and any others I’ve left out), provide the fundamental textual motions in our language. The ability of a reader to understand a text as the author intended it relies firstly on the author’s control of those basic motions.

While an experienced author employs those tenses, forms, and moods as his trusted tools, our young school-age writers often find that controlling them is a daunting task–hence, we tell them to “pick a tense and stick to it.” With some practice, they’re able to write moving novels, present their convictions, and, perhaps, even prod a presidential candidate to answer a philosophical question.

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