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The ‘First’ GOP Debate: What We Learned

by Andrew Haines

Yesterday night’s GOP debate marked—according to co-moderator Major Garrett—the first real debate of the 2012 election season. Of course, this came as a shock to those who’d followed the previous ten or eleven meetings of presidential hopefuls. All in all, things Saturday kept pretty tame: no gaffes, no derisions, and no… wait, what was the third thing, again?

Still, something of the latest event, co-sponsored by CBS News and National Journal, was a little different. And anyone who watched could sense it.

Billed as the “Commander in Chief” debate, a single thread of foreign policy-related questions propelled the entire hour-and-a-half-long webcast. The undercurrent, it’s clear, was to force candidates to “think outside the box,” and to depart from talking points in favor of on-the-fly arguments and assessments. On the surface, at least, it seemed to work: no mention of “999” or the Federal Reserve, to speak of.

But the restricted scope of discussion, along with the overt aim of promoting candid remarks, ultimately backfired. Far from the Anderson Cooper rugby match of last month, Saturday’s moderators virtually pinned down and pummeled candidates on some of the toughest questions imaginable: “Why is Pakistan vacillating?” “Would you send troops across their borders?” “Is waterboarding torture?”

While any contender for the presidency should be willing and able to give straight answers to serious questions, it’s a fact that some questions just don’t make the cut. Asking once whether or not a war with Iran is “worth it” is a pretty aggressive conversation starter. Insisting—with another 30 seconds—that it be answered directly is just bullying.

What began as an admirable attempt to get candidates thinking on their feet ended up as a strange roast. Hard-hitting questions quickly became one-two combos.

What we really learned from the “first” debate of the season had less to do with any one candidate’s position, and more to do with our cultural sensibilities regarding serious conversations. No doubt, TV ratings are important, and there’s nothing like sticking it to ’em to boost those. But there’s an underlying component to the questions asked that mirrors rather closely the feelings of so many Americans, in general. If we’re going to have a serious debate, after all, we’d better ask the most divisive, challenging questions we can muster.

The problem with this sort of thinking is that, while it’s powerful, it’s also short-sighted. At bottom, it asks for a lot of output on the receiving end, and very little input from the questioner. We expect our leaders to be critical thinkers, but are we willing to do a little critical thinking, ourselves? (I submit that anyone who believes a question like “Is invading Iran worth it?” can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” isn’t too familier with critical analysis.)

The main job of a debate moderator is not only to ask questions, but to ask questions that will advance genuine discussion and inform viewpoints. Last night, we got a taste of what happens when the desire for controversy overpowers an appreciation for nuance, prudence, and diplomacy. In a quest for easy-to-understand answers, easy-to-confuse topics are made ever more ambiguous and uncertain.

As members of a civil society, we all play the role of debate moderator—and contender—throughout the course of daily life. Keeping the goal of social stability and the common good in mind—and recognizing what happens when those ideals slip—we should work especially hard not to so quickly separate the power of asking questions from the requisite clear-thinking and prudence that’s so essential for answering them.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life, and a leading contributor at Ethika Politika.  He is currently working to complete his PhD in philosophy at The Catholic University of America. Andrew lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

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