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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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  • cosmoetica

    I believe not a one of the 23 q’s that Mark Daniels wd have asked were asked. A shame.

  • StockBoySF

    Jeb, that’s a fair assessment in your article and I tend to agree with it broadly.

    However when it comes to a country as big and as important as Russia (or China, or the UK or a few others) I think knowing the name of someone you will be dealing one on one with is important. Hillary may have stumbled over Medvedev’s name (I can’t get it right) and the response wasn’t as coherent as all of her canned and rehearsed responses, but I actually liked her response because it showed her thinking on her feet. Obama came away from that particular question looking better (because he got to think about the answer) but I think Hillary won it and I learned more about Hillary than I did about Obama. Not that he had a bad response, but he had time to prepare, so most of the “thinking on your feet” part was moot.

    It was a lot better than Huckabee not knowing that huge piece of important news out of Iran (or was it Iraq) late last year (I forget what it was). Both Clinton and Obama understand that the rest of the world goes on while they are campaigning and that it’s important for them to keep informed (whether via advisors or by reading on their own).

    But yeah, I don’t expect the candidates to know the leader of some place like Benin, but it is important to know who is the likely successor (and one you will be dealing with a lot) in one of the most important countries in the world.

    I think that Russert should have asked Obama a similarly tough question on some place like China or Australia. Perhaps not about the leader(s) but something to show that Obama was aware of the issues.

  • Macan

    Have you guys all forgotten about the famous “gotcha” interview of Bush in the 2000 election, where the media ridiculed his stupidity for not being able to mention the names of 4 leaders?

    “The front-runner for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination faltered Thursday in an international affairs pop quiz posed by Andy Hiller, a political reporter for WHDH-TV in Boston. Hiller asked Bush to name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, India and Pakistan. Bush was only able to give a partial response to the query on the leader of Taiwan, referring to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui simply as “Lee.” He could not name the others.”

    And now it is “unfair” and “cruel” to expect Hillary and Obama to know the new “puppet” leader of Russia…one of the world’s great powers…and one with thousands of nukes?

    Will anyone in the media even DARE ask Obama the name of the president of Chechnya or Taiwan?

    Hell would freeze over first.

  • Macan

    I should add – in fairness to Jeb K – that Jeb’s response was exactly the response of President Bill Clinton at the time…when reporters expected him to join with them in mocking Bush’s stupidity…like Jeb, he thought these details were unimportant.

    BTW: Howard Kurtz did an informal survey of Washington journalists at the time, and could not find a single one who could name the 4 leaders.

    But, of course, Bush is a MORON…and so is free game.

    It is “cruel” to ask the same of Hillary and Obama.

    Double standard anyone?

  • LAgal

    Maybe she did not get the name quite right, but Hillary was able to indentify Medvedev as the next Russian leader. Barack Obama, the Chair of
    the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on European Affairs, has not convened policy hearings since he took over as its chairman a year ago. How come nobody comments on this?

  • Guest

    Hello, everyone –

    Thanks for all the thoughtful feedback.

    Briefly, I want to address your follow-up comment, StockBoy. I think the difference here is that Medvedev is not a well-known guy, he is not yet the president of Russia, and that he actually just came on to the political scene a few months ago. To suggest that the candidates have the time to follow, and remember, all these minute details of Russian politics seems far-fetched, and basically irrelevant to the presidential race.

    Furthermore, reporters should not fall into this mode of trying to catch candidates “off guard” in order to reveal their ignorance. This isn’t a polisci exam, and candidates should not be forced to know every development in world politics. Should candidates be aware of a country’s history and its political scene? Absolutely. But should they have to know the personal history of, say, Nawaz Sharif? Probably not. Ultimately, it’s a matter of degree, and I think Russert took it way too far.

  • pacatrue

    It was discussed earlier in a post, LAgal, but I am unable to find the link for you.

    I should say that I find Jeb’s original topic a much more interesting question than whether or not the media did this or that 8 years ago or whether or not some blogger is being equally fair to every candidate and on and on. The unfortunate truth is that it’s possible to memorize the capitals or Presidents of every country on the face of the Earth and still not have any idea how to deal with any of them. The former is what we must memorize in 4th grade; the latter is what we need out of a President.

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