This time around, the extraordinary length of the campaign coupled with the size of the field is pressuring both candidates and journalists to seek defining points – whether they actually exist or not. Tim Russert, NBC's chief asker of tough questions, has done a disservice to the current round of debates by repeatedly challenging candidates to "take the pledge."
Rarely, in politics or life, is it wise to take an unequivocal pledge about anything, especially if the video clip might come back to haunt you on a future edition of “Meet the Press.” Yet, Mr. Russert favors this time-wasting tack.
In the September 26 debate, Mr. Russert's first area of questioning, directed at Senator Barack Obama, included: "Will you pledge that by January 2013, the end of your first term, more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq?"
The question, in its absoluteness, is unreasonable. If by "no troops" Mr. Russert means, "zero – not even guards outside an embassy," then a pledge becomes per se irresponsible, which is exactly how Sen. Obama characterized it in his reply.
Mr. Russert turned next to Sen. Hillary Clinton: "You have said that you will not pledge to have all troops out by the end of your first term, 2013. Why not?" Stuck in an unfair corner, Mrs. Clinton replied in part, "I agree with Barack."
Next, Sen. Edwards was offered a chance to take the pledge. "I cannot," he said.
But Mr. Russert was relentless in flogging his impossibly simplistic demand. "I want to put you on the record," he intoned to the full field. “Will you pledge, as commander in chief, that you'll have all troops out of Iraq by January of 2013?"
Only Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich gambled and took the pledge, which probably reflects more on their chances of winning the presidency than of having to account to Tim Russert.
When the topic shifted to Iran, Mr. Russert asked Gov. Bill Richardson: "Would you make a solemn commitment to the American people that Iran will not become a nuclear power?" Gov. Richardson took the bait and said, "Yes," quickly adding that he’d seek to do it through “diplomacy.”
Since Tim Russert's preoccupation with unreasonable pledges spoiled his otherwise tough, pointed questioning in the September debate, it was surprising to see him go down the same path this week in Philadelphia.
"Senator Clinton,” he asked, “would you pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president?" As she bobbed, the audience laughed aloud nervously at the impossible nature of the question. Sen. Edwards weaved. Then, Sen. Obama asked if, “we could potentially short-circuit this (line of questioning),” and the audience laughed again.
Still, the pledge was requested of all seven candidates, until Rep. Kucinich finally made his appeal for media restraint. "We don't want to be put in a position where we are taking this country to the threshold of war," he said. "The media did play a role in taking us into war in Iraq, and I'm urging the members of the media to urge restraint upon you and our president, whose rhetoric is out of control."
As the campaign drags on, Mr. Russert and his colleagues might consider several pledges of their own. If you’re going to invite seven candidates to a debate, will you pledge to give them each approximately equal time to be heard? If you’re going to limit certain answers to 30 seconds, will you pledge to ask only 30-second questions? If you truly believe in a fair presentation, will you pledge to not always place the presumed front-runner in the center of the stage?
And, if your goal is clarity rather than confusion, will you pledge to stop asking candidates to take the pledge?
© Peter Funt.