September 8, 2016

On Answering Debate Questions

Last night’s Commander-in-Chief Forum reminded me of my frustration in listening to answers given by candidates to questions asked by journalists. Candidates, of course, want to deflect criticism, attack the opponent, and push their own message, whether or not that message is related directly to the question asked. I doubt that candidates are going to change their behavior during the present campaign. Nevertheless, I want to offer my wish list of how I would like candidates to answer questions:
  1. Answer the question asked, not a variation of it or a related (or unrelated) question.
  2. If the question states or implies an assumption you think wrong, don’t answer the question. Explain why the assumption is wrong. Never try to answer “Have you stopped beating your wife/husband?”
  3. Except as noted above, don’t offer an opinion about the question.
  4. Give succinct answers. “Yes” or “no” is a fine answer to a yes-or-no question. Let the questioner ask for elaboration rather than offering it gratuitously.
  5. Don’t prattle on in hopes of consuming time or avoiding the next question.
  6. Unless it’s classified, tell the truth or refuse to answer the question. That a truthful answer will be embarrassing is not an excuse for not giving it. Think twice about becoming defensive, but a brief exculpatory statement is acceptable.
  7. It’s fair game to contrast yourself or your position to the opponent or the opponent’s position. Such an attack must be relevant to the question, however. Avoid gratuitous claims of competence or (especially) virtue.
  8. Avoid humor unless it is genuinely funny, relevant, and devastating. Usually, this means a line must have been devised in advance.
  9. Don’t start to answer a question in a way that you don’t know where you are going. If necessary, pause and think before beginning to answer.
  10. Respond to the opponent only if absolutely necessary. Lies, but not differences of opinion, need to be countered.

Am I missing any important rules?

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