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To celebrate the official start of the holiday season, here’s a gift for all Americans who will be participating in the presidential debates of Campaign 2008, either as designated askers or answerers.
It is a gift that needs to be opened early, before it is too late: “The Official Handbook for Smarties on How to Avoid Messing Up in Presidential Campaign Debates.”
For candidates: Think deeply about not looking shallow and stupid. It is embarrassing to see that, this year especially, even candidates considered at the top of their debate game are messing up when they should be mopping up. Even when asked obvious questions they knew would be asked.
So today’s advice to candidates is to first try a nontraditional approach: Forget calculating the politically smartest thing to say, and try saying what you really think. You’ll find it is a lot easier to sound smart when you are saying what you truly believe. And you’ll discover that voters, when they recover from their shock, will like to see that sometimes a candidate can be candid.
We have here an example from the recent Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. Very big in the news, for days, was New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to follow the lead of seven other states by requiring undocumented illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York had been hammered for waffling on it in the previous debate; public opinion forced the governor to drop the plan. This was the next debate since that had happened. (Who reading this column hasn’t thought that, just knowing this, it’s a question that would be asked?)
Another clue: Sen. Barack Obama had voted for the same sort of plan as a member of the Illinois state senate. (Who hasn’t guessed that it would be asked of both Clinton and Obama?)
Not so fast, Obama. You looked like you never expected to be asked about it. Even though you used it to attack Clinton the very first time you had a chance to speak.
Today’s lesson is focusing on that Las Vegas debate of Nov. 15, in part because Obama has seemed so sharp so often in the campaign that it shows us how easy it is for a politician to go from up to down.
When CNN’s Campbell Brown made this the first question of the night, Obama said: “… what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we’ve seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues — on the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.”
Naturally, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pressed for a yes-or-no answer: “Do you support or oppose driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants?” Surprisingly, Obama went into a rope-a-dope: “I am not proposing that that’s what we do. What I’m saying is that we can’t …”
The audience saw it was another of those here-we-go-again moments and interrupted the usually facile senator with laughter. “No, no, no, no,” Obama followed, looking a bit like a circus fellow backpedaling his unicycle on a tightrope when a surprise hurricane struck. “Look, I have already said, I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver’s licenses at the same level can make that happen. But what I also know…”
“All right …,” Blitzer interrupted, but Obama pedaled harder: “But what I also know, Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it.”
Blitzer then noted that “this is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes-or-no answer.” And the audience laughed at the now-flummoxed Obama. Blitzer went down the line, asking each candidate if he or she supported driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Well, they all semi-waffled until Blitzer got to Clinton, who gave this answer, presented here in its entirety: “No.”
Which brings us to the “Handbook” section for the askers: Short questions produce better answers. Especially when they focus on just one point. Brown, Blitzer and colleague John Roberts all asked questions that counted out at more than 100 words.
But there was one other moment that produced a major cringe: It was the journalistically embarrassing opening of the show. It was all about spotlighting CNN’s reporters. For 15 minutes, Blitzer interviewed his cohorts about what they expected the candidates would be saying. This happened while the actual live presidential candidates were stationed on stage like potted plants behind lecterns.
We need to understand what viewers already understand: It is not about us. The next time a promotional producer has a great idea like that — just say no.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)