One of the things I’ve bee doing during debate season is tracking the types of questions that moderators ask. The Bloomberg/WaPo debate Tuesday night this week looked very different than the others, with far more basic policy questions — indeed, basic policy questions dominated the debate. There were a few gotchas, but not many. As far as my preferences are concerned, the moderators did a great job.

The big exception was the segment in which candidates were required to ask questions of each other. Mostly what that segment reminded us is just how lousy a group of debaters this is, at least by conventional standards. What most of them did was to pick the candidate they were most interested in derailing and ask that candidate a “tough” question. For the most part, that did the questioner little good; it just gave the target a chance to talk for a while. For example, Newt Gingrich asked Romney a question about a specific detail that Newt didn’t like in Romney’s tax plan, and the Mittster responded by ignoring the detail and, instead, talking about what a terrific tax plan he had. Advantage: Romney.* No candidate attempted the mildly clever ploy of asking the question of an ally, not a target; that is, if Perry wanted to hit Romney, he could have asked Santorum to talk about the similarities of Romneycare and Obamacare, instead of asking Romney that question. At least Santorum managed to use his question time to make a speech attacking several candidates, although his debate skills have plenty of other problems.

On balance, I don’t really mind the gimmicky ask-each-other rounds (which we’ve seen before, better executed, in previous cycles), and I was really happy overall with the questioning. I should mention: I do think that these debates are less useless when they focus on basic policy exposition, but I’m not really saying that one way is “right” or “wrong”, and overall it’s important to remember that the debates are a lot less important than they’re made out to be (because they’re a nationally visible signal in a period in which most of the action is either “invisible” courting of party actors or on-the-ground campaigning in early states). Still, if we’re to have debates, they might as well perform the function of educating those voters who are interested enough to watch, and as much as I’m not one for issues politics I do accept that there’s a place for it, and it’s something that debates can do.

…or at least in theory it is. The other thing I should note about these debates is just how detached from reality the candidates remain. Whether it’s Barney Frank causing the housing crisis (and if people took Newt seriously, which of course they shouldn’t, they might notice that campaigning for the presidency by threatening to toss the other party’s politicians in jail is, well, an interesting choice), or death panels, or mythical IRS agents, or Barack Obama’s policies causing 30 year old income distribution patterns, it’s just astonishing how little connection to fact there is in these debates. And while some exaggeration is standard for political rhetoric, it sure seems like something else with the current GOP. I’m fairly confident that if you go back to 2000 or 1996, you wouldn’t find a comparable situation.

*Of course, it’s not at all clear that Gingrich actually minded that, given that he presumably knows he’s not going to be the nominee.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.