Please, Just Answer the Question
We may have already seen the last of election debates in the US and that's not a bad thing. The candidates don't answer the questions anyway.
Politicians refusing to answer questions isn't exactly new. It's been happening for years. These days however, candidates aren't even pretending to try to answer questions from debate moderators or reporters.
Whether it was during one of the US election debates, or last year's federal election campaign, I've lost track of the number of times I said in frustration "Please, just answer the question."
An Awkward Start to Lunch
Imagine for a moment being back in the pre-pandemic days and you’re out for lunch with a business associate. (Remember the good ‘ol days?)
After the two of you get seated, you try to get some easy discussion going by asking “So how’s business these days for your company?”
The response is “Hasn’t the weather this summer been great? I can’t remember a year when we have had so much warm weather and so little rain.”
You obviously would be a little taken aback by this response. Wasn’t your question about business heard properly? Is this just a weird way of answering the question? What do you say next?
After an awkward moment, you likely decide to roll with it and talk about the weather before getting back into the business discussion. But you know it’s weird and it doesn’t feel right. When you ask a question, you expect to get an answer.
That’s what the last couple of US election debates have been like, especially last week’s Vice-Presidential debate. We almost forget that a year ago we had a federal election campaign in Canada and Prime Minister Trudeau and then Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer refused to answer a lot of questions from reporters too.
Answering the Question Becomes Optional
As I watched last week’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris (Harris won hands down by the way), I noticed how many questions they either totally avoided answering, or only gave a partial answer to.
This wasn’t by accident. It was by design. Both of them spent hours with aides rehearsing. They went through every question they were asked during the debate and several more. They knew when certain questions came that they didn’t want to answer, they wouldn’t. If they were pressed, they knew what their next response would be, but it wouldn’t include an actual answer.
Decisions are made by candidates and advisors that certain questions won’t be answered because they believe the cost of not answering the question is less than if they did answer it truthfully. In last week’s debate, they likely knew moderator Susan Page of USA Today wouldn’t be able to press them for answers because of time constraints.
The week before, the debate between President Trump and Joe Biden also left several questions unanswered. Mind you, that was one of the better parts of that debate, all things considered.
Remembering Nick Taylor
I mentioned last year’s federal election. We saw the same thing from Trudeau and Scheer during daily media scrums. Both would get tough questions from reporters and many times they would pivot and start talking about something else. If a reporter was allowed a follow-up question and pointed out that their question hadn’t been answered, Trudeau or Scheer occasionally mustered up a better answer, but quite often they didn’t.
As the campaign went along, I noticed reporters were only allowed one question, so they didn’t even get a chance to demand an answer to their first question.
Media scrums actually give politicians a better chance to control the message. Due to the number of reporters wanting to ask questions, things need to move along to the next reporter with the next question, so if a politician doesn’t answer a question, another reporter with a different question is lined up ready to go.
Is there a downside politically for a politician to do this? Yes and no. Some voters will notice a politician is being elusive, while others won’t. Since the politician fills the time by talking about something they want to talk about, the people who aren’t fussy about getting an answer will likely be impressed with the answer they get.
We’re also starting to see more federal cabinet ministers and opposition leaders demand a list of questions from a journalist before agreeing to do an interview. Global TV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Mercedes Stephenson made that point a few days ago on Twitter. She said that’s not how journalism works and she’s right of course, but it’s another way the message is being managed these days in politics.
Politicians don’t want to get caught off guard with a question and when they get a question they don’t like, they refuse to answer it. Politics in 2020.
Last week, I heard about the death of former Alberta Liberal leader Nick Taylor, who was the best interview I had in 15 years in the media. I interviewed him a lot, because I had his home number and he was a walking, talking south bite machine. Being in a tiny opposition, he always was ready to talk and get some news coverage.
I remember calling him for a phone interview one night and after producing an interview with some beautiful sound bites he thanked me for calling and he said something I’ll always remember. He said “You might not always like my answer, but I appreciate you asking me the question”.
We need more Nick Taylors in politics these days.
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I recall Nick Taylor as passionate, sometimes ‘off the wall’ from my point-of-view, however always seemingly forthright. And I recall thinking at the time it would be interesting to see what he would accomplish leading Alberta.
Yes it would have been interesting, but it's always easier to be in opposition than in government, even in those days when our problems seemed so much smaller, looking back on them today.