It was in 2008, the debate between vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Biden had just scored his opponent for failing to directly answer a question from moderator Gwen Ifill. But Palin was hardly apologetic. “I may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you want to hear,” she snapped, “but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.”
In other words, she felt no particular obligation to answer the questions she was asked. Her obligation was to her talking points.
Not to pick on Palin. Truth is, there are few things more fully bipartisan than ducking a question. The art of making sound while saying nothing has become so ordinary and ubiquitous a part of politics as to defy notice, like wallpaper. The process takes on the flavor of twice-chewed gum, the players playing their prescribed roles in which interviewers pretend to believe they will get straight answers and politicians pretend to believe they have given them. And then TV and radio pundits spin the nothing that was said, tell us who to blame, who to scorn, who to fear, at decibel levels that would humble a jet engine.
Robert Kilmer has had enough. And he proposes a solution. Namely, a television series in which public figures debate the issues of the day under two simple rules: (1) the participants must answer questions directly and, (2) they must do so without making reference to their opponent’s argument, party or ideology.
“In other words,” says Kilmer, “you have to show up with a solution and defend it. You’re going to be asked follow-up questions. Your statements are going to be fact checked in real time and appear on the screen.” The moderator will be empowered to enforce those rules.