Want to debate policy? Try respecting your opponent

Alexander Chase

With a large field crowding the past Republican debates, specific policy proposals have been hard to come by. While CNBC tried to make this a point of focus in the last debate, their tone offered a way out for Republican candidates and showed that respectful conversation can be more important than content.

CNBC’s moderators set their condescending tone early. At one point, Carly Fiorina proposed cutting the tax code from 73,000 pages to three. It would make sense to ask her what those three pages would be composed of. Instead, the moderator asked whether she would do that “using really small type.”
This line of questioning fundamentally placed evaluation of policy second to personal attacks. The GOP candidates were ready to play that game. It allowed them to obscure their own flaws and look strong in the face of opposition.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) perhaps took the most advantage of this. When asked whether his uncooperative behavior made him less of a problem solver, Cruz was able to avoid the question entirely by attacking the debate as a “cage match.”
The question Cruz dodged is meaningful and unanswered. Serious voters need to know whether Cruz would be willing to work with Democrats. What could have been a discussion of Cruz’ willingness to set aside partisan goals turned into a chance for him to do the opposite.
Cruz was not the only candidate to take advantage of this tactic. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) dismissed a legitimate question about his financial record as a partisan attack. Both senators were widely reported to have won the debate and saw gains in national polls.

The lesson, then, is that tone matters. Disrespecting an individual and then expecting their cooperation is absurd. No one — including politicians and moderators — should expect to get away with that.
If simple decency is not enough to convince future moderators to be civil in their questioning, the results of this debate and others should. Vox’s Matt Ygelsias makes the case that voters scrutinize candidates more when moderators ask less pointed questions. Pointed questions allow voters to take sides, and they will usually side with those they already support. When candidates are asked to explain their views, however, voters must evaluate their answer on its face.

This same lesson should extend to all debates. Demeaning questioning anywhere is a problem ­— be it on a Republican primary debate stage or the front of a classroom.
Student Government will host a debate on Nov. 16 between College Republicans and University Democrats about campus carry. The moderators of this debate would be wise to ask representatives on both sides direct, respectful questions about policy that leave no room to deflect attention to anything else. Issues must come first, and the best way to guarantee this is for moderators to remove themselves from the conversation.

Chase is a Plan II and economics junior from Royse City. Follow Chase on Twitter @alexwchase.