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Posted by on Feb 27, 2008 in At TMV | 7 comments

A Cleveland Grilling

Michael Signer, a former adviser to the Edwards campaign, recently wrote an article for The Washington Post arguing that the media isn’t paying enough attention to foreign policy issues in its coverage of the presidential campaign. It’s hard to argue with that. As Signer notes, most reports about candidates and their foreign policy agendas have the “flavor of a fantasy baseball article in Sports Illustrated.”

The press should certainly do a better job of questioning presidential candidates on their views about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other hot spots. But, realistically speaking, how much should presidential candidates actually have to know about foreign affairs? The impetus for this question came from last night’s Democratic debate in Cleveland, and a particular exchange between moderator Tim Russert and Hillary Clinton. Russert quizzed Clinton, in a way reminiscent of a high school history class, to name Vladimir Putin’s successor — Dmitri Medvedev — and describe his background.

Clinton hemmed and hawed a bit, clearly lacking somewhat in the details, but she did know enough about Russian politics to suggest that Putin’s successor was hand-picked and pre-vetted for the job. I thought it was a good response but Russert apparently didn’t, pointedly asking for the man’s name. Clinton stuttered again, but managed to produce a last name that sounded like Medvedev’s. It was an uncomfortable grilling, and it raises the question: is it fair game to quiz candidates on world affairs to such minute detail? Signer thinks so, writing at Democracy Arsenal that it was “extremely heartening” to hear Russert ask the tough questions.

I think differently. It is certainly true that the media should do a better job of assessing and questioning presidential candidates’ views on foreign policy. But only to a reasonable extent. What is most important is that candidates have a big picture idea of countries’ histories and political trends. This is what the media should be probing, and this is what we — as voters — should be interested in hearing about. Minutiae about the ages or educational backgrounds of foreign leaders is largely irrelevant, and should not be required knowledge of presidential candidates.

Tim Russert’s question was particularly unfair, given that Medvedev has only recently arrived on the front burner of the Russian political scene. (Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Viktor Zubkov was widely considered to be Putin’s successor.) To ask Senator Clinton to name facts about Medvedev’s background or even to ask her to give us his full name is not only cruel, it’s also unimportant. She doesn’t have to know every intricacy of Russian politics to craft effective policies — that’s what advisers are for.

A better question would have probed the Russian political scene, the extent of the changes that Putin has instituted since 1999, Moscow’s stance towards Europe and NATO, and how American policy should seek to confront the country’s backslide away from democracy. These “big picture,” macro-level analyses of foreign affairs are what candidates should be asked about, since these perceptions — not inane details about up-and-coming foreign leaders — are primarily what will determine their future policy decisions.
Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

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