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CNN's GOP Debate Questions: This Silly or That Silly?

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Last night in New Hampshire, CNN held its first debate of the Republican presidential primary. Among the headlines: Michele Bachmann announced that she had filed papers for a Presidential run, an indication of her seriousness about entering the race that was evidently not sufficiently conveyed by her standing on stage, participating in a Presidential debate. Mitt Romney entered as a frontrunner and behaved and was treated like one. And debate moderator John King introduced what is the daffiest, and let us hope shortest-lived, gimmick question of the 2012 debate season: “This or That?”

The stunt was pretty much what it sounded like: little lightning-round questions in which King asked the various aspirants: Elvis or Johnny Cash? Coke or Pepsi? Deep dish or thin crust? (This last question was posed to former pizza CEO Herman Cain, so it arguably had substantive relevance.) Sadly, none of the candidates responded with the correct answer: “Oh, for ____’s sake John, this is CNN, not the Game Show Network.” Though from the video above, it looks like Ron Paul at least came close.

Just a general note to moderators of every presidential debate, ever: no one is sitting at home hoping you’ll “lighten the mood.” Your audience is people who have chosen to watch a Presidential debate on a weeknight. (In this case, in June of the year before the election.) They’re already in! They are actually OK with you asking serious questions about being President and stuff! If they wanted the mood lightened, there are about 300 other channels of reality shows, and they would be watching one of them right now.

It was, of course, a two-hour debate, and that left plenty of time for more issue-oriented questions—focused very heavily on the economy, with detours for social issues and foreign policy—as well as attempts by King to stir the pot and create a headline for the next morning. One of those came early on, when he tried to goad Tim Pawlenty to repeat his phrase “Obamneycare” (to describe Mitt Romney’s health-care program as governor of Massachusetts), with Romney standing in front of him. Though King all but called Pawlenty a wuss and stopped just short of claiming that Romney had been saying stuff about Pawlenty’s mama, the Minnesotan did not step up.

The thing is, differences on health care are a perfectly legitimate—in fact, almost mandatory—topic of discussion, but King’s line of question didn’t really do much to draw those differences out. It was instead, entirely about personality and theatrics. Will they mix it up? What does it say about Pawlenty’s character if he won’t mix it up? Does he have the fire in the belly?, &c.

It was not King alone, however, attempting to turn the debate into a reality show. In their introductions, one GOP hopeful after another stated their qualifications for the job by enumerating their number of children (or, in Cain’s case, grandchildren). Presumably there’s a pro-life, family values litmus test there, but it was like they were not running for President but aiming to get a reality show on TLC. (To which nonattendee Sarah Palin had already beaten them.)

And none of them could top Bachmann, with her five children and 23 foster kids, which she alluded to several times in the debate. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a debate winner.

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