Answer Man

Presidential candidates do not get a peek at questions before debates

GOP presidential candidates Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush on stage during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian in Las Vegas on Dec. 15, 2015.
GOP presidential candidates Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush on stage during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian in Las Vegas on Dec. 15, 2015. Sipa/Tribune News Service

Q: While watching the recent presidential debates, I wondered: How much time are candidates given to prepare answers to the questions (which are obviously given to them prior to the debates)? Some of the answers are extremely well thought out, and I doubt if any of the candidates could think that fast on their feet and probably need help from various sources. Also: All these millions of dollars they spend on their campaigns — who gets that money? If it’s true, as Trump said, there were millions of dollars spent, wouldn’t that money be better spent helping the economy (and the poor) get out of debt? Just what are they spending that money for?

Sharron Lindsey, of Belleville

A: This will come as a surprise, but while debate organizers may announce general discussion topics, specific questions reportedly are never released.

Some Republicans recently blasted CBS News’ John Dickerson, the host of the most recent Democratic debate in Greenville, S.C. Before the debate, Dickerson and his team reportedly met with both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns for more than an hour to informally discuss the major issues of the day. But while there was no indication that the host of “Face the Nation” gave out specific questions, conservatives attacked his motives in no uncertain terms.

“By discussing with them the issues, he is not only warning them about what issues he will discuss but they are previewing his questions,” the folks at www.redstate.com charged. “This is not journalism. This is simply shilling for the Democrats.”

Even during the 2012 debate series between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Commission on Presidential Debates raised eyebrows when, for apparently the first time in history, it announced the topics for the first debate in Denver. Although again no specific details were given, moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS, said there would be three questions on the economy and one each on health care, role of government and governing.

“It eliminates any surprises and candidates will just cite memorized soundbytes,” lamented George Farah, of Open Debates, an election watchdog group, at the time.

But — and this is purely personal opinion — isn’t that what they often do now? Just look at the criticism recently leveled against Marco Rubio for repeating the same lines over and over. It shouldn’t be surprising, though. Candidates prepare for these things like Itzhak Perlman prepares for a performance of a Tchaikovsky concerto with the New York Philharmonic. They rehearse for days with their handlers peppering them with every question they can imagine that might be asked. If an answer sounds sketchy, they do more research. They may even have people play their opponents so they might have a few zingers ready if they find themselves under attack.

I’d say that’s why you often hear them take off on an answer that doesn’t match the question being asked. They’re so intent on getting across the information they have rehearsed that they may ignore what the moderator is really after. That’s why Stephen Carter, of Bloomberg View, recently argued that providing the specific questions actually would improve debates. He gives three reasons why giving each candidate 45 minutes to answer all questions would give voters a much better sense of their fitness for office. See what you think:

First, debates as currently designed do not mirror the real world. When in office, presidents almost never have to answer one of those so-called “gotcha” questions. Even during crises, they consult staff and outside experts before making a decision. Candidates should be afforded the same luxury during debates.

In addition, Carter says, the current format rewards the candidates who are smooth and glib, rather than the ones who might be dull but right. Once in office, presidents can’t reduce critical issues to slogans and applause lines. Debates should veer away from these typical responses, too, which may draw cheers but show little depth.

Finally, seeing how a candidate divides up his 45 minutes among the questions may give you a perspective on his priorities. Does he spend 10 minutes on defense and one on education or vice versa?

At any rate, it’s an intriguing proposal. As for the colossal sums of money spent on campaigns, I fear it’s simply a necessary evil. To make yourself known to and woo voters, you have to hire campaign staff, buy supplies (buttons, pamphlets, mailings, etc.), do lots of traveling, and buy lots and lots of advertising in papers (yes, they help pay your Answer Man) and on radio, TV and, now, social media. Otherwise, you may wind up like a store that doesn’t advertise. You may have the best merchandise in the world, but if nobody knows you exist you’re not going to be in business long. So candidates have to spend wads of their own cash and raise billions more to publicize themselves and respond to attacks. Naturally, the huge sums that some can afford to give continue to raise questions of access and influence.

Perhaps we could limit campaigns to a couple of months before the election. It’s about all I can take before I start throwing Nerf footballs at all the slimy ads on my TV, anyway.

Today’s trivia

In ancient Greece, you could be condemned to death for harming what kind of tree?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Although the story’s veracity is doubted, some say bourbon was first produced by Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister in Kentucky, in the late 1700s. Legend has it that a fire at his distillery burned many of his barrel staves. Rather than throwing them away, he used them to make new barrels, turning the charred part to the inside so nobody could see it. By the time his barreled whiskey reached New Orleans, it had developed a new, sweet flavor. Voilà — the birth of bourbon.

Craig being a minister reminds me of a joke about a pastor railing to his congregation about the evils of alcohol. “Let us throw all the beer in the river!” he exclaimed. Amen. “Let us throw all the wine in the river!” Amen. “Let us throw all the whiskey in the river!” Amen. With his sermon finished, the pastor turned to his flock and said, “Now join me in singing hymn No. 362 — ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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