Character Counted in Second McCain-Obama Debate

October 8th, 2008 12:00 AM

NBC's Tom Brokaw asked mostly straightforward policy questions in Tuesday's presidential debate, but also found time to throw several character-revealing queries at John McCain and Barack Obama.

Of the 21 questions asked, six (29 percent) revealed character, according to methodology employed in CMI's recent Special Report, “Character the Most Important Issue in Presidential Primary Debates.”  That study examined all 1,332 questions in the 35 total primary debates for both parties and found that character – in the sense that the questions revealed integrity, leadership, honesty and courage – figured into 36 percent of the questions. 

The first debate, moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer on Sept. 26, was candidate-driven, with Lehrer functioning more as a referee. Only three character questions arose. Two were about whether the candidates would change their priorities due to the financial crisis, and the other was about a possible future 9/11 attack.  Interestingly, few commentators picked up on Lehrer's use of the phrase “affect the way you rule the country.” Rule?  In America?

But we digress. Here are the character-revealing questions from Tuesday's debate.


Brokaw: “Are you saying to Mr. Clark (ph) and to the other members of the American television audience that the American economy is going to get much worse before it gets better and they ought to be prepared for that?”


Audience Member: “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got -- got us into this global economic crisis?”  


Brokaw:  Sen. McCain, for you, we have our first question from the Internet tonight. A child of the Depression, 78-year-old Fiora (ph) from Chicago. Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices -- sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we're now in?”

In the next question Brokaw broke the media mold of blaming the financial crisis on Wall Street greed, by including an abdication of personal responsibility by individual consumers.

Brokaw:  “President Bush, you'll remember, last summer, said that “Wall Street got drunk.” A lot of people now look back and think the federal government got drunk and, in fact, the American consumers got drunk. How would you, as president, try to break those bad habits of too much debt and too much easy credit, specifically, across the board, for this country, not just at the federal level, but as a model for the rest of the country, as well?”

Two more questions also involved leadership:

Audience Member:  “Should the United States respect Pakistani sovereignty and not pursue al Qaeda terrorists who maintain bases there, or should we ignore their borders and pursue our enemies like we did in Cambodia during the Vietnam War?”

Audience Member:  “If, despite your best diplomatic efforts, Iran attacks Israel, would you be willing to commit U.S. troops in support and defense of Israel? Or would you wait on approval from the U.N. Security Council?”

As CNSNEWS Editor in Chief Terry Jeffrey notes:

An analysis of a complete transcript of the debate posted by CNN shortly after the debate ended, indicated that of the 21 distinct debate questions, 9 focused on the economy, 7 on foreign policy, 2 on health care, 1 on the environment, and 1 on energy.
An additional question—the last one in the debate—came from a woman in Amherst, New Hampshire, and was characterized by Brokaw as having a “Zen-like” quality.  It was:  “"What don't you know and how will you learn it?"

We wonder whether that question was smuggled in by the blue-suited woman in the top row who often smiled goofily and could barely conceal her delight with Obama. The audience was supposed to be entirely non-committal.

In his article, Jeffrey also points out that Brokaw posed no questions about immigration, Iraq, abortion, or same-sex “marriage.” Domestic policy is the theme for next Wednesday's debate, so perhaps those topics will be raised by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News. 

Most of the questions that Brokaw selected for the “town hall” format were down the middle, but at least three were asked from liberal premises:

Audience member:  “We saw that Congress moved pretty fast in the face of an economic crisis. I want to know what you would do within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast as far as environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs?”  (Premise: global warming is man-made and the government needs to expand to crack down on carbon emissions.)


Audience Member: “Senator, selling health care coverage in America as the marketable commodity has become a very profitable industry. Do you believe health care should be treated as a commodity?” (Premise: profits are evil, therefore the government must do more.)


Tom Brokaw:  “Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?” (Premise: the first two terms smack of class envy and entitlement. “Responsibility” is neutral, because the question does not define who bears the responsibility, individuals or government.)

Brokaw briefly violated his own responsibility, to remain impartial, by implicitly criticizing one of McCain's answers.  Asked what he would tackle first, energy, health or entitlement reform, McCain said he would do all three at once.  Brokaw then asked Obama the same question, but first commented that “there are some real questions about whether everything can be done at once.” Brokaw did not cast doubt on any of Obama's answers.

McCain skipped several golden opportunities, such as defending his much-criticized statement that the “fundamentals of the economy” are sound, which Obama used to paint him as an out-of-touch Pollyanna. McCain could have talked about America as an opportunity society that is the economic miracle of the world and then accused Obama of wanting to bring the failed policies of socialist countries to America. Also, on the Wall Street meltdown, McCain was strangely silent about the roles played by Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Chuck Schumer and other liberal Congressmen in encouraging Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the banks to issue loans to people who could not remotely afford it.

No one brought up ACORN's role, either. ACORN is a far-left group that Obama worked with in Chicago and which intimidated lenders into making risky loans or risk being accused of racism. McCain talked only in generalities, much as the media have done about assigning culpability. He did say that “greed” in Wall Street and Washington created the mess. For his part, Obama did a good job tying McCain to the Bush Administration while blaming Bush for the nation's financial ills.

Finally, Obama, not Brokaw, repeated the media mantra that the U.S. health care system is “broken.”  McCain unveiled his tax credit plan for health insurance, but he missed the chance to say that, however imperfect, America's health care is the envy of the world and the fountainhead of medical research, unlike socialized systems.  You know, the kind of thing Reagan would have said.

Any missed opportunities for either man was not Brokaw's fault. He gave them an open field, including several chances to show off their character.

Robert Knight, Director of the Culture and Media Institute, and Colleen Raezler, CMI Research Assistant, are co-authors of “Character the Main Issue in Presidential Primary Debates.”