I was pretty unimpressed with the dueling 60 Minutes interviews with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama last night. Just for starters, any time a reporter vaguely summarizes what "your opponent" says and then asks, "How do you respond to that" — well, that deserves an immediate demotion to AA ball. It's ridiculously amateurish. And yet, that was Steve Kroft's very first question to Obama.
But I guess you could write that off as a pet peeve of mine. So instead let's take a look at a line of questioning that Scott Pelley used on Romney. This comes after he's noted that Romney is eager to explain his tax rate cuts in detail, but not so eager to explain which tax deductions he wants to eliminate to make up for the cuts:
Pelley: You're asking the American people to hire you as president of the United States. They'd like to hear some specifics.
Romney: Well, I can tell them specifically what my policy looks like. I will not raise taxes on middle income folks. I will not lower the share of taxes paid by high income individuals. And I will make sure that we bring down rates, we limit deductions and exemptions so we can keep the progressivity in the code, and we encourage growth in jobs.
Pelley: And the devil's in the details, though. What are we talking about, the mortgage deduction, the charitable deduction?
Romney: The devil's in the details. The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.
Pelley: You have heard the criticism, I'm sure, that your campaign can be vague about some things. And I wonder if this isn't precisely one of those things?
Pelley's heart is in the right place, but come on. Romney has given this answer before. Pelley knew he was going to say this. So why not decide beforehand to get a little tougher? At the very least, suggest that Romney claims to be a leader, and the public has a right to know their leaders' preferences even if no one expects them to get 100 percent of what they ask for. Or, since you know that Romney won't say what he will ask for, try a series of questions that makes it plain what's on the table. Maybe something like this:
Pelley: Are there any deductions that you're not willing to consider eliminating? For example the home mortgage deduction?
Romney: Well, I'd want to consult with Congress....
Pelley: How about the charitable deduction? Is that off the table?
Romney: Nothing is off the table, Scott, but....
Pelley: Would you be willing to consider eliminating the tax exemption for health care benefits?
Romney: I'm willing to consider anything, but I don't have a set list in mind....
Pelley: Retirement income? State tax deductions? Are you open to eliminating any of these?
I understand that Romney's actual answers would be longer and more filibusterish than I've suggested, but there's no law that says a reporter can't interrupt if a candidate isn't being responsive. One way or another, though, if you already know that Romney isn't going to tell you what he will do, maybe you should at least try to get him on the record about what he won't do. Would pressing him on deduction after deduction be a little bit rude? A little bit aggressive? Sure. But isn't that what a 60 Minutes reporter should be?
And before anyone asks, yes, this goes for the interview with Obama too. Kroft challenged Obama in some of the right general areas, but his questions were so broad and so timidly phrased that Obama didn't even have to try hard to evade them. We learned almost nothing from either of these interviews.