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Specifically, yes or no?

This post also appeared Sept. 23, 2012 on the blog of the Columbia Missourian public life beat, The Watchword.  

It’s hard to prepare for the artful dodge of politicians, I suppose, with anything other than practice. I’m hopeful that the experience of being a panelist at the Missouri Press Association’s gubernatorial forum last Friday, combined with my current studies of public policy, will prepare me to craft questions that require more specific responses than I got last week.

Not quite a debate, the forum was held for press only at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia. I was one of three panelists facing three candidates for governor: current Gov. Jay Nixon, his Republican challenger Dave Spence, and Libertarian candidate Jim Higgins. I joined Bill Miller from the Washington Missourian and Jeff Fox from the Independence Examiner at the panelist’s table. David Lieb from the Associated Press moderated.

I think the format presented part of the challenge to specificity. The forum was broadcast live on radio and television, requiring a strict timetable that David Lieb managed admirably. Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond to each question. At Lieb’s discretion, candidates were given 45 additional seconds for rebuttal. There was no opportunity for follow-up questions from panelists. In other words, nothing in the forum’s architecture held them accountable for providing actual answers.

At first, I confess, I was relieved that there would be no time for follow-up questions. That took a bit of pressure off, as I was nervous to “perform” so publicly. By the end, I decided I would have preferred the risk.

Of the three questions I had time to ask, the one most ignored was about racial disparities. I pointed out the persistent achievement gap among schoolchildren, and statewide economic indicators of inequality by race in employment, homeownership and business ownership, as well. “What do you make of that? And what, as governor, would you do to address it?” I asked.

Spence at least acknowledged the racial element of my question, but otherwise responded as if I had asked about education. His fellow candidates followed suit, answering a question about education when I had asked about racial inequities.

In retrospect, I wished I hadn’t set up the question by pointing out the educational achievement gap. Nonetheless, the fact that they didn’t answer the question may have been — at least in part — an answer in itself.

Ironically, my question that was answered most directly was the one that broke a cardinal rule of interviewing: yes or no. “Do you support the tobacco tax increase on the November ballot, and do you think the state’s colleges and universities need more money?” All three answered no to the tax question, and all for different reasons that they explained rather succinctly.

The more open-ended a question in most interview settings, the more complete a response you solicit. However, this is clearly a different setting that calls on different principles of the craft, I learned.

In the flow of the forum, it was hard to decide which question to close with. I had prioritized five questions, but had no way of knowing what my fellow panelists were going to ask until they posed theirs. Mine were not the only questions greeted by vagaries, and most of them revolved around jobs and the economy. Wanting to change the subject, I asked about guns.

Higgins is explicit about his position on the Second Amendment on his website: He opposes gun registration itself as a limit to the right to bear arms. Nixon and Spence both say they support the Second Amendment, so I simply asked them all to explain exactly what they mean by their support. The long and the short of their responses: they support it. No explaining exactly what that means, not even from Higgins.

Now, there’s only so much specificity anyone can deliver in 90 seconds, even if you want to get down to brass tacks. I’ll grant them that.

But specificity is anathema to the campaigning politician, and the skilled ones know how to avoid it. They rely on ambiguities, some would argue, as the only conceivable way to draw support from as many constituencies as they need to win.

Maybe a simple “yes or no” is about as much as you can hope to get from them in a forum like this. I won’t settle my sights on that close a range, but I certainly will be less afraid of asking such a simple question in a similar setting in the future.

And I’d jump at the chance to ask follow-up questions, too.

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