Thursday, April 17, 2008

Debate points; or, Silly in Philly

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I'm with
Obama (and, at long last, my friend, co-blogger, and Clinton supporter Carl): No more debates! There have been 21 of them. What good would #22 do? What would it tell us that we don't already know?

There has been a great deal said and written about last night's awful debate, awful not so much because of the two candidates (although Obama seemed flat and tired, Clinton petty and desperate) but because of the appalling moderation of ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.

It was "the worst of times," as The Plank's
Jonathan Cohn put it in one of the better evaluations of the debate. In another good evaluation, The Stump's Noam Scheiber, who found Obama "flat and off-balance for most of the night" and Clinton "generally on her game," called it "a huge missed opportunity for Hillary." Still, wrote Scheiber, "the real story of the night was the crazy gauntlet of questioning ABC put Obama through. The first half of the debate felt like a 45-minute negative ad, reprising the most chewed over anti-Obama allegations (bittergate, Jeremiah Wright, patriotism) and even some relatively obscure ones (his vague association with former Weatherman radical Bill Ayers)."

A negative ad directed at Obama? Quite so. But he generally did well in his defence while Clinton, as usual, pressed too hard to score points.


Now, it's not at all surprising -- or shouldn't be -- that Gibson and Stephanopoulos did what they did, emphasizing the politics of the horse race over the policy substance of the candidates. Policy is too hard and complex for many in the media -- consider, for exmple, Gibson's lame and inaccurate effort to press the capital gains tax issue -- while politics is all about who's winning by how much and, more broadly, the whole drama of it all. Obama's economic positions are policy; the fall-out from his remarks on working-class Pennsylvanians is politics. The media thrive on politics, and especially negative politics, which they blow out of proportion, which is what Gibson and Stephanopoulos did last night. Others do it, too, of course -- notably the disastrous NBC duo of Russert and Matthews, not to mention everyone at Fox News, where the politics is, as you all know, decidedly partisan.

Besides, by Debate #21, how much more policy can we take? -- so, yes, we media consumers and political junkes deserve some of the blame, too. Did we really want a debate on, say, the nuances of health care policy? I suspect not. We get taken in by the politics just as the media do, and many of us have been following the (negative) politics of the race right along with the media. I would argue, however, as many have, that Gibson and Stephanopoulos went way too far. Conservative hacks like Dave Brooks might defend them, but the consensus is clear (at least among Democrats).


Now Stephanopoulos -- whom, we ought to remember, worked for Hillary's husband -- has come out to defend himself (and his partner, too), and some of Obama's supporters have gone too far in attacking him, but it seems that his performance was worse even than his critics suggest. Worse because of this: "the unseen influence of Fox News' Sean Hannity was also on stage... In the debate last night, Stephanopoulos asked a question that mirrored almost word-for-word what Hannity pressed him to ask" on his radio show on Tuesday, just a day before the debate. Specifically, Hannity wanted Stephanopoulos to ask Obama about his alleged connections to the Weather Underground, a militant lefist group that existed roughly from 1969 to 1976:

Hannity: "Is that a question you might ask?"
Stephanopoulos: "Well, I’m taking notes right now."

In truth, Obama has been "friendly" with one of the Weathermen, William Ayers. That's it. And I thought his response to what was a reckless question designed to stir up controversy was excellent:

George, but this is an example of what I'm talking about.

This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.

And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense, George.

The fact is, is that I'm also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions.

Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those either.

So this kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow -- somehow their ideas could be attributed to me -- I think the American people are smarter than that. They're not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn't.

The Republicans will no doubt continue to make a great deal of this, the party of negativity that they are, but Stephanopoulos's intention was obviously to score points of his own with a Russert-like "gotcha" question. And, again, what makes it far worse is that he was asking Hannity's question. In other words, in his capacity as debate moderator, for which he has been defending himself publicly, he was, in this case, acting as the mouthpiece for the Republican Smear Machine.

A leading right-wing ideologue and propagandist manufactures dirt on Obama and Stephanopoulos plays right along.

There's your media at work.

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