Fox News and the Republican Party of Florida were the sponsors of a 90-minute Republican presidential candidate debate in Orlando last Sunday. The Fox interviewers, Brit Hume, Chris Wallace, Wendell Goler and Carl Cameron, asked more than 40 questions. I missed the debate on TV but looked over the transcript.
I was hoping to see a few questions on important issues. For example, the national debt is now more than nine trillion dollars. Many Republican primary voters, the target audience of this debate, really care about deficits and the debt. One question could have been: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that interest on the debt – just the interest, not reduction of the debt – is the third highest item in a taxpayer’s dollar? And then, of course, I expected questions on Iraq and Iran and possibly something on global warming or current issues like immigration, or the terrible welcome that Benazir Bhutto got on her return to Karachi. No such luck.
Questioning began with this hard-hitter by Wallace:
“Mayor Giuliani, Senator Thompson says that you’re soft on abortion, that you’re soft on gun control, and that you’ve never claimed to be a conservative. Who is more conservative: you or Fred Thompson?”
The follow-up, also by Wallace, was: “Governor Romney, Senator Thompson says that you ran to the left of Teddy Kennedy in 1994, that you were proudly pro-choice, as recently as 2005, and that his philosophy doesn’t depend on geography. Who is more conservative: you or Fred Thompson?”
Wallace’s third question was to Thompson, about his conservative bona fides. And a little later, this question for John McCain: “Senator McCain, you didn’t like it much when Governor Romney said recently that he spoke for the Republican wing of the Republican party. Who’s more conservative: you or Mitt Romney?”
There were six questions in all on who’s the most conservative, four on gay marriage, two on abortion, one on the religious right and seven on Hillary Clinton. On Clinton, candidates were asked, “Is Hillary Clinton fit to be commander in chief?”
Iraq slid into the discussion at about Question 23, with Wallace asking John McCain whether, if he got the nomination and ran against Clinton, his support for the troop surge would be “a winner for Republicans in 2008?”
Fourteen questions later, Carl Cameron, saying his was the first foreign policy question of the evening, asked McCain, “Are we headed back to a new Cold War, or has the Bush administration been naive in dealing with Mr. Putin?”
The transcript shows only one other question about Iraq, regarding a possible Turkish incursion there. No questions about ending the war or American policy in Iraq, none at all on Iran or any other foreign policy issue, in fact. None on immigration. Candidates could get into these issues if they chose, but only by making leaps from the questions.
There were eight questions on Social Security and Medicare, those subjects having come up after one of the candidates, not a Fox interviewer, first mentioned them. Hume handled these areas, asking candidates if they were prepared to be bold and make cuts in benefits, as in:
“What Senator Thompson said, Mayor Giuliani, will open him to accusations that he’s trying to cut Social Security benefits. He will be accused of being willing to diminish or take away the prescription drug benefit that many now have come to depend on. He has suggested that Medicare beneficiaries might have to suffer loss of benefits (inaudible) high income. He’s out on a limb on that. Are you prepared to be as bold?”
And then to Romney: “How about it, Governor Romney? Are you prepared to be as bold as Senator Thompson has been in making an – in addressing these extremely sensitive entitlement programs?”
Wendell Goler, Fox’s White House correspondent, asked several candidates about health care, to his credit. (Five questions, I counted.) Aside from that, the interviewers focused almost exclusively on the personal side – who’s a real conservative, and who can be nastier toward Hillary – and avoided questions on important issues in American life. That obviously was no accident; reporters and editors prepare for events like this.