Friday, May 25, 2007

What's the Score?

As the political season approaches, and the various declared Presidential candidates begin dancing in the spotlight to attract support, they are forced to perform the one unpleasant act that no politician wants to be caught doing: They have to answer questions. When they answer a question, they can expect that their answer will satisfy some people and alienate others. Presidential candidates don't have the luxury of alienating too many people, so they have to tread very carefully.

Even seemingly innocuous questions, such as, "Are you a cat or a dog person?" is fraught with peril. Answer "Cat," and you risk upsetting the 63 million dog owners in this country, all of whom posess a vote you need. This is why such straightforward questions are usually answered with cautious evasive tactics that may not satisfy either group, but it won't piss them off, either. For example, "I believe that it is the fundamental right of all Americans to own the pet of their choice, and I will fight for strong legislation that will ensure the health and safety of every pet in this great country." Sounds good, but doesn't answer the question.

The problem is, some politicians are better at avoiding difficult questions than others. This doesn't mean they would be better leaders, but we have to measure them by what they say. It's my opinion that politicians who avoid straight answers will make lousy leaders, because they will only say what they think people want to hear. A politician who claims to have "a vision for America," but doesn't elaborate on that vision, probably doesn't have a vision at all.

For this reason, I have developed the following Q&A Scoring System to rate the politicians in the upcoming Presidential race.
-Provocation = 2
-False Assumptions = 2 each
+Straight Answer = 2
+Proposed Solution = 2
+Solid Promise = 2
-Evasion = 2
-Vague Promise = 1


Questions can have a QUESTION VALUE of 1 - 5. For example, questions on serious issues affecting the entire world have a value 5. The cat-or-dog question has a value of 1.

World Importance (War in Iraq, Trade Sanctions) = 5
National Importance (Abortion, Election Reform) = 4
Regional Importance (Border Security, Farm Subsidies) = 3
Sector Importance (Minimum Wage, Postal Rates) = 2
Individual Importance (Cat or Dog) = 1

Some questions are provocative in nature, such as "Do you believe that Federal funds should be used to kill babies in abortion clinics?" Such questions are important (the abortion issue should receive an 4 on the QUESTION VALUE scale) but clearly designed to be provocative, so it gets knocked down to a 2 by subtracting the Provocation value. The same thing is true about false assumptions. For example, "Should Jews be dictating American foreign policy?" contains the false assumption that Jews are dictating policy. The question has a face value of 4 (National Importance), but gets knocked down to a 2 by subtracting the False Assumption value.

The answer given by the candidate will be subjected to similar scoring, with the understanding that no answer will lower the Q&A Score below zero. Thus, a candidate who gives an evasive answer to a provocative question will not be unduly penalized. In the previous example answer to the cat-or-dog question, the candidate would have scored -2 (2 subtracted for evasion, 1 subtracted for vague promise), but this would simply be adjusted to zero.

Here's a straightforward question posed by ABC's Cynthia McFadden to Hillary Clinton on September 7, 2006 (

    McFadden: As we sit here today, was it a mistake to go into Iraq?
    Clinton: Well, given this administration's track record, they have been nothing but a series of mistakes.
    And I don't see this administration, frankly, with the credibility and the authority to lead both our country and the world in dealing with these very threatening situations. So even if one could say they made mistakes and they shouldn't have done it, right now we're in a series of challenging decisions and they aren't demonstrating the leadership necessary. ... But they're a hard group to help, I've got to tell you. They don't listen to Democrats or Republicans.

This question scores 5 on the QUESTION VALUE chart, and it's neither provocative nor does it contain false assumptions, so it's a high-value question. However, Ms Clinton doesn't answer the question, choosing instead to criticize the current administration. So -2 for evasion, yielding a score of 3. Not bad, considering.

Now here's Barack Obama answering a similarly straightforward question posed by Larry King (not known for hard-hitting interviews) on March 19, 2007 (

    KING: Touching other bases, Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace caused a furor last week. He said homosexuality is immoral. He said he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the Army. First, do you think it's immoral?
    OBAMA: You know, I don't think that homosexuals are immoral any more than I think heterosexuals are immoral. I think that people are people and to categorize one group of folks based on their sexual orientation that way I think is wrong.
    I disagreed with General Pace. More importantly, I think, traditionally, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff tries to stick to military issues precisely because of the kind of hot water that he got himself into this time out. And hopefully he's learned his lesson.
    I hope, more broadly, that we take up the call of previous commanders in the field who have said that it's time for us to examine the policy right now that is very costly and excludes gays and lesbians who have been serving ably in the military from service.

This question scores 4 on the QUESTION VALUE chart, and it suffers by being mildly provocative, which costs 2 points, lowering it to a 2. Obama acquits himself well, scoring 2 points for a straight answer. So his scrore for this question is 4.

In this simple test, Barack Obama outscored Hillary Clinton. Admittedly, it's an unfair test, because the questions were different, so it's like comparing apples and oranges. The idea here is that over the coming months, scores will accumulate, and provide a fair assessment of all candidates. Candidates who make themselves more available for questions will have more opportunities to score.

Not to leave Republicans out, let's take a quick look at John McCain, in an interview with Chris Wallace on April 30, 2007 (,2933,269119,00.html):

    WALLACE: ...As part of a compromise to keep Social Security from going bankrupt, would you be willing to cut benefits? Would you be willing to increase the age for eligibility?
    J. MCCAIN: Before we get into any of those specifics, you have to know that anyone who gets out front on this issue without sitting down and negotiating with everything on the table will get nowhere.

    And so I will do what Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did. I will sit down with the Democrats. We will look at the options on the table. We'll call in the smartest people that we can find, and we'll reach an agreement.

    If I take a position on any of those issues right now, one, it doesn't work. And second of all, it's got to be the product of bipartisan negotiations where people sit down across a table from one another.

This question scores 4, and isn't provocative. Some might say it contains the false assumption that Social Security is going bankrupt, but I think most economists agree that Social Security is in financial trouble. Let's give the critics the benefit of the doubt and subtract 2 points from the question for the false assumption. The answer was clearly evasive, and included a vague promise. So despite the false assumption, John McCain scores a big zero for that answer.

I like the idea of keeping score so that we can all measure the performance of the candidates this season. I'm sure there will be lots of debate over what constitutes evasion, and how vague is vague? But that's where the fun is - because there's nothing fun about choosing the person who will inherit the war in Iraq.


    nancy said...

    Hi Tim,

    Great thought piece. Perhaps you could trademark it and sell it to the media and make a million bucks.

    Anonymous said...

    God I am already sick of politics and now I have to keep score? I agree with Nancy sell your idea to the media, Tim Russert could really use this idea!

    Anonymous said...

    Dead Poets Society REDUX

    "If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness."

    "Now I want you to rip out (THIS)that page!"

    "Begone J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D."

    Signed.... Unamimous