Debate Questions: A Primer

Ken AshfordElection 2016Leave a Comment

There continues to be a lot of criticism of the moderators of the CNBC debate held Wednesday night.  And some of the criticism is legitimate.  The first question to Donald Trump, for example, was “Are you a comic book candidate?” is so absurdly dumb that it staggers the mind.  It is a question designed solely for the purpose of soliciting a reaction, of getting a sound bite, of getting the moderator some press attention (which it did, in a negative way).

On the other hand, you have complaints like this:

“Debates are supposed to be established to help the people get to know the candidate,” Carson said at a news conference before a speech at Colorado Christian University. “What it’s turned into is — gotcha! That’s silly. That’s not helpful to anybody.”


“Using it for political purposes just doesn’t make any sense at all,” Carson said. “The first thing we’re looking for is moderators who are actually interested in getting the facts, and not just gotcha questions.”


Asked to define a “gotcha” question, Carson focused on a debate exchange about Mannatech, a nutritional supplements company that the former neurosurgeon had repeatedly endorsed, personally and in paid speeches.

“The questions about Mannatech are definitely gotcha questions,” Carson said. “There’s no truth to them. I know people know how to investigate. They can easily go back and find out I don’t have any formal relations with Mannatech. They can easily find out that any videos I did with them were not paid for, were things I truly believed. That would be easy to do. If they had another agenda, they could investigate and say — see, there’s nothing there! But if they have a gotcha agenda, they conveniently ignore all the facts and try to influence public opinion.”

Bzzzzzt!  Wrong!

There are two kinds of questions in a debate — relevant and stupid (i.e., irrelevant).  A relevant question is one about a political policy (regarding any issue) or political philosophy, or aspects of one’s character (leadership, integrity, judgment, etc.).  An irrelevant question is one that has no bearing on any of those.

A “gotcha” question is not always bad — in fact, it may be relevant.  “Did you take a bribe for your votes while in the Senate?”, for example, is clearly a gotcha question, and (I think everyone would agree) is relevant.  “Did your cousin have a legal abortion in the 1980s” probably is not relevant.

But question that is hard, and a question that may raise an issue of a candidate’s past or character isn’t a bad debate question.  And for Carson, the Mannatech issue is not an inappropriate question to ask.  Especially since his answer seemed rich with prevarication:

“There’s a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a ten-year relationship,” Quintanilla asked. “They offered claims that they could cure autism and cancer. They paid $7 million to settle a deceptive-marketing lawsuit in Texas and yet your involvement continued. Why?”

“Well, it’s easy to answer,” Carson quickly replied. “I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda.” He then backtracked a little. “I did a couple of speeches for them. I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches,” he told the crowd before switching back to a full denial. “It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.” Then he again acknowledged a role. “Do I take the product? Yes, I think it’s a good product.”


As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, Carson’s relationship with the company deepened over time, including “four paid speeches at Mannatech gatherings, most recently one in 2013 for which he was paid $42,000, according to the company.” The company disputes that Carson was a “paid endorser or spokesperson,” according to the Journal, and claims his financial compensation went to charity.

National Review also highlighted Carson’s connections to Mannatech in January and how Carson’s team went to great lengths to distance themselves from the company. Some of his video appearances have been removed from the Internet, but those that remain appear to show a deeper affiliation than Carson claimed during Wednesday’s debate.

In one video for Mannatech last year that remains online, Carson discusses his experiences with nutritional supplements while seated next to the company’s logo. “The wonderful thing about a company like Mannatech is that they recognize that when God made us, He gave us the right fuel,” Carson explained. “And that fuel was the right kind of healthy food … Basically what the company is doing is trying to find a way to restore natural diet as a medicine or as a mechanism for maintaining health.”

Carson stopped short of making substantive medical claims about Mannatech’s products. But he did say

“You know, I can’t say that that’s the reason I feel so healthy,” he said. “But I can say it made me feel different and that’s why I continue to use it more than ten years later.”

Which, when coupled with the known fact that he is a doctor, amounts to a medical endorsement.

And that is a problem.  It certainly raises a question.  Which is why a question is appropriate.  Even if all it does is give Carson a change to smack down the issue.

Candidates should welcome these “gotcha” questions — it gives them a spotlight to clear the record.  (see Obama, Birth Certificate).  The candidates who complain about “gotcha” questions are those who get “got” by them.

UPDATE:  And now this…

Mr. Andrew Lack Chairman, NBC News 30 Rockefeller Plaza New York, New York 10112 Dear Mr. Lack, I write to inform you that pending further discussion between the Republican National Committee (RNC) and our presidential campaigns, we are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016. The RNC’s sole role in the primary debate process is to ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America’s future. We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns. The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith. We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance. CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.”  That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case.  Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed. While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas. I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not. While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it. I will be working with our candidates to discuss how to move forward and will be in touch. Sincerely, Reince Priebus Chairman, Republican National Committee

The debate questions were not in bad faith — they were just bad.  So, Reince is partially right.  Whining about it though — that’s not petty?   Also…. Important to note: the NBC exec in charge of the suspended 2/26 debate, Andy Lack, doesn’t oversee CNBC… it operates independently… Drum reacts like me:

CNBC did screw up, but mostly by failing to keep the toddlers on stage under control and being poorly prepared to deal with brazen lies delivered with a straight face. For what it’s worth, I’d also agree that a few of the questions they asked were stupid and/or churlish. Not much more than any other debate, though. But conservative grievance culture is once again demanding someone’s head on a platter. After all, if conservatives look bad on television it’s gotta be someone else’s fault, right? So it’s off with NBC’s head. Jeebus. And these guys claim that they’re the steely-eyed folks who can take down Putin and the ayatollah? What a bunch of crybabies.

Anyway…. Since, I was talking about Carson…. this also happened:

This is true.  Also, amateurs produce more porn than professionals.  The point? Seriously, this Republican meme about amateurism being an asset is crazy and dangerous.  Carson seems to relish his standing not only as an outsider but as a non-expert in public policy. He seems to believe that he’d be able to govern by applying “common sense” to the nation’s problems. But this is nonsense. The presidency is a hard and complex job. Electing a true amateur to the White House makes as little sense as having an amateur doctor do brain surgery.