Eleven years can do bad things to your memory. I was as close to certain as certain can be that it was Brit Hume who asked Al Sharpton to explain his understanding of the Federal Reserve during a debate in New Hampshire in 2004, but it turns out that it was Peter Jennings. What I must have been remembering was Hume laughing and crowing afterward about Sharpton’s inability to answer the question. I also didn’t realize that it was a joint FOX/ABC debate. I thought it was sponsored solely by FOX, although ABC has traditionally been almost as partisan in the way they treat these debates.

A sample from April 16, 2008:

STEPHANOPOULOS: A gentleman named William Ayers. He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that. And in fact on 9/11 he was quoted in The New York Times saying ‘I dont regret setting bombs I feel we did not do enough.’ An early organizing meeting for your state Senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are ‘friendly.’ Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?

In any case, going back to the 2004 debate in New Hampshire, the FOX/ABC moderators were trolling the Democratic candidates all night. It opened with a question from Jennings for John Kerry:

JENNINGS: In your career, you voted to raise billions of dollars in taxes. You’ve advocated spending billions more in this particular campaign. So I would like you at the outset to put yourself in a moment, on a stage like this, if you’re the nominee sometime during the fall. And if you are the nominee, what will you say exactly, precisely, if at that time President Bush says, “Senator Kerry is going to raise your taxes and I am not”?

Then he asked Howard Dean to answer the same question, but with a proviso that he could use all his time to talk about “The Scream” if he’d prefer to do that:

JENNINGS: Governor Dean, I’m going to ask you the same question. It happened, of course, to Governor Dukakis, to Walter Mondale and to Al Gore. And you are supporting more tax increases than Senator Kerry.

But I do also, in fairness, want to give you a choice here, if you’d like to use some of the time to talk about — or maybe all the time, your choice — to talk about what some people think was your overly enthusiastic speech to you supporters the other night, which many people actually think has hurt your candidacy…

In fairness, last night’s debate followed a somewhat similar pattern, at least in the tendency to gather up negative stuff and throw it in the faces of the candidates.

Right off the bat, for example, Trump was asked to pledge that he wouldn’t run as an independent, which he refused to do. And then Megyn Kelly went after Ben Carson:

KELLY: Your critics say that your inexperience shows. You’ve suggested that the Baltic States are not a part of NATO, just months ago you were unfamiliar with the major political parties and government in Israel, and domestically, you thought Alan Greenspan had been treasury secretary instead of federal reserve chair.

Aren’t these basic mistakes, and don’t they raise legitimate questions about whether you are ready to be president?

What stood out about the Federal Reserve question posed to Al Sharpton by Peter Jennings was that it was a “one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other” kind of thing. He asked Kerry about how he could beat Bush given his record on taxes and Dean about The Scream that had been airing constantly on cable news ever since the Iowa caucuses, but Sharpton got a detailed philosophical policy question in an area where the moderators had decided he was weak. All were tough questions in their way, but only one was actually substantive. And the message was clear: the moderators didn’t think Al Sharpton belonged on the stage.

And maybe he didn’t. At the time, I actually thought it was a good question, and Sharpton’s total inability to answer was informative. The only reason it was unfair was because they didn’t ask the other candidates questions that were similar in kind and intent.

When Kelly challenged Ben Carson on his lack of basic geographical and economic knowledge, it went to his preparedness to be president, not merely his skills as a politician. I think that’s a better question than, “hey, do you want to talk about how much people are making fun of your scream?”

But there’s also a gotcha quality to all these questions that really undermines the point of having a debate about issues. At a minimum, there should be a distinction between pointing out that a candidate has been saying some really crazy, dishonest or just plain misinformed shit on the campaign trail and asking them to respond to really crazy, dishonest or just plain misinformed shit people have been saying about them during the campaign. The Stephanopoulus question to Obama about William Ayers was definitely in this latter category, while asking Ben Carson about why he thought Alan Greenspan was the Treasury Secretary and the Baltic States were not part of NATO is in the former category.

They did better last night when they let Rand Paul and Chris Christie fight about the right balance between protecting people’s privacy and fighting terrorism. Within the constraints of the format, it wasn’t possible to have a good debate on this issue, but people did at least get a sense for where each candidate stood, and why. And at least it’s an issue and a philosophical difference, which is not something you could really say about Howard Dean’s scream.

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