Phil Klinkner’s post (immediately below) about Obama’s and McCain’s responses to a question about what “rich” means in the “Civil Forum on the Presidency” hosted yesterday by Pastor Rick Warren has put me in mind of an excellent article by James Fallows in the current Atlantic, about the performance of the questioners and the candidates so far in the 2008 round of presidential debates. Among Fallows’s many points is that the questioners have for the most part done a truly lousy job, in large measure because their questioning strategies have followed the unfortunate lead of the sainted Tim Russert.
Anyway, because I didn’t watch the McCain-Obama conversation with Rick Warren, Phil’s post led me to search out the transcript (isn’t the Internet wonderful? Thank you, Al Gore) in order to see for myself whether McCain really defined “rich” as having an income of $5 million or more. (Click here for the full transcript.) The answer is maybe or maybe not. But mainly what I found in Warren’s question and McCain’s rambling answer (much of which I’ve omitted below) is a good object lesson in how questions and answers work in campaign debate – and more specifically, a fine example of poorly formulated questions and all-over-the-place-but-don’t-stray-off-message answers:
Q. ON TAXES, DEFINE RICH. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT, YOU KNOW, TAXING THE RICH AND — BUT NOT THE POOR, THE MIDDLE CLASS. AT WHAT POINT — GIVE ME A NUMBER, GIVE ME A SPECIFIC NUMBER WHERE DO YOU MOVE FROM MIDDLE CLASS TO RICH? IS IT 100 THOUSAND, IS IT 50 THOUSAND, 2 HUNDRED? HOW DOES ANYBODY KNOW IF WE DON’T KNOW WHAT THE STANDARDS ARE?
My comment: The question is ambiguous. What is being asked about? Gross income? Net income? Total wealth? Or what?
A. SOME OF THE RICHEST PEOPLE I’VE EVER KNOWN IN MY LIFE ARE THE MOST UNHAPPY. I THINK THAT RICH IS – SHOULD BE DEFINED BY A HOME, A GOOD JOB AND EDUCATION AND THE ABILITY TO HAND TO OUR CHILDREN A MORE PROSPEROUS AND SAFER WORLD THAN THE ONE THAT WE INHERITED.
My comment: This initial response is all over the place: Rich=home ownership, a well-paying and enjoyable job, education, a prosperous future for one’s family, world peace – along with an explicit delinking of “rich” from income or wealth.
…SO — SO I THINK IF YOU’RE JUST TALKING ABOUT INCOME, HOW ABOUT FIVE MILLION. SO — BUT SERIOUSLY, I DON’T THINK YOU CAN — I DON’T THINK, SERIOUSLY THAT — THE POINT IS THAT I’M TRYING TO MAKE HERE SERIOUSLY — AND I’M SURE THAT COMMENT WILL BE DISTORTED, BUT THE POINT IS – THE POINT IS — THE POINT IS THAT WE WANT TO KEEP PEOPLE’S TAXES LOW AND INCREASE REVENUES.
My comment: Here “rich” is explicitly linked to income, at the $5 million level. But was this said seriously or sarcastically? From the transcript it’s hard to tell, but the “but seriously, I don’t think you can…” follow-up suggests that it wasn’t intended seriously. He then turns the question into an attack on high taxes, which I’m going to omit in order to get on to the next point in his response.
…SO IT DOESN’T MATTER REALLY WHAT MY DEFINITION OF RICH IS BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO RAISE ANYBODY’S TAXES.
My comment: Now the point is that the definition of “rich” is inconsequential because it has nothing to do with holding taxes no higher than their current level.
My final comment: Here we have, within just a couple of minutes, a wide array of different answers (rich is lots of good stuff but not money, or it’s $5 million, or it just doesn’t matter), with lengthy off-point forays into anti-tax rhetoric, to a question that was poorly formulated in the first place. Welcome to the debates.