4.17.2008

Philadelphia debate, follow-up: Gaining some perspective

On ABC yesterday, the debate moderators clearly took the low road. Not only did they aim tough question after tough question to Barack Obama, but the type of issues they raised (Ayers, the flag pin, Wright's patriotism) had no place in a presidential debate. Disguising the questions under the clock of electability was clearly hypocritical and disgraceful. I said all of this in my original debate analysis.

Yet, given the extent of the anti-ABC protests, I believe it is important to regain some perspective. Obama might have received an unfair treatment, but the debate certainly did not reach the level of outrageousness many people are describing today, not enough to call it the "worst debate" in years, to herald this as the illustration of the high odds Obama is facing and to circulate tasteless YouTube videos announcing the death of Stephanopoulous.

The outrage that is being leveled at the ABC debate is fully justifiable -- but only if we reserve the same exact outrage to the moderation of other equally absurd debates we have seen this cycle (particularly those moderated by Tim Russert). My argument here is not that yesterday's debates were legitimate because Obama has to go through some sort of vetting process, but rather that it is absurd to isolate this last debate as particularly nasty when this is an opportunity to blame the way debates are being conducted these days, hurting both candidates.

For instance, my account of the Feb. 26th Ohio debate is very similar to the one I wrote yesterday; only the roles are reversed. That day, Tim Russert and Brian Williams grilled Clinton despite the fact that Obama was a week away from clinching the nod. Russert's "Medvedev" trap was reserved to Clinton; the "technical" mix-ups of wrong videos were being shown also happened to hurt Clinton; and Brian Williams giving Obama free reign to respond to Clinton ("How were her comments about you unfair?") was strikingly similar to the way in which Stephanopoulous repeatedly turn to Clinton to ask her to make her case against Obama yesterday. And has everyone forgotten the truly absurd trap Russert laid for Clinton at the Dartmouth debate in September?

The Clinton campaign had been complaining for nearly a year that their candidate was receiving a disproportionate share of the tough questions -- and they were doing so justifiably. Front-runners receive the roughest treatment, but that does not justify disproportionately one-sided and uncommonly nasty questioning, with no substantive issues was addressed in the first 45 minutes.

The Philadelphia debate was gotcha politics. But then again so was the Ohio debate.

In Raleigh today, Obama addressed yesterday's debate and Clinton's behavior:

I will tell you it does not get more fun than these debates. They are inspiring debates. I think last night we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people...

Now, I don’t blame Washington for this because that’s just how Washington is. They like stirring up controversies and getting us to play gotcha games and getting us to attack each other. And I’ve got to say Sen. Clinton looked in her element. She was taking every opportunity to, you know, get a dig in there.... That’s all right, that’s her right, that’s her right to kind of twist the knife a little bit....

Look, I understand though, because that’s the textbook Washington campaign, because that’s the politics that’s been taught to be played, that’s the lesson that she had heard when the Republicans were doing the same things to her back in the 1990s.

This response is strikingly similar to that the Clinton campaign trumpeted after the debates in which Hillary was harassed by all sides; "the boys" after after her, the campaign claimed, blaming the media's bias in Obama's favor. Today, Obama is doing exactly the same thing: Questioning the moderation by presenting it as an example of the type of politics he is trying to fight.

This is not to say that Clinton and Obama's criticisms are not legitimate and that they are merely spinning. In fact, I believe they are both very much legitimate, and that too many debates this cycle were poorly handled and moderated. But it is important to keep some perspective. No, yesterday's debate was not an example of the establishment fighting Obama -- but of the media seeking to create the most entertaining narrative on the back of the democratic process.

Yesterday's debate was also an example of the caricature of Democrats the media relays. Even beyond the first 45 minutes, candidates were asked about issues which the Right eagerly promotes to fracture Democrats -- gun control, affirmative action, patriotism, ... In fact, the closest parallel to yesterday's debate might be the GOP anger over the YouTube debate in which CNN selected caricaturally Republican questions.

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15 Comments:

  • Probing the weaknesses has indeed taken the place of substantive debate on the issues at hand. It's now more about winning at all cost between the parties. Last night's debate was all about testing Barack and knocking him down. I think they succeeded. Barack gestured that he was brushing it off, but his surrogates' outrage confirms that he's been taken out of the running. Vetting is for before the race, not during. I'm still pissed he entered the race without distancing himself from his poorly chosen associates. He even kept the house. Shortsighted.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 17:44  

  • I think it is wrong to say as the poster above does that because of one poor debate performance it is over for Obama. If that was the case Clinton would have left months ago. What the "outrage" about the debate moderators does is help Obama because less attention is given to his performance. Also the Pope visiting and meeting with the abuse victims makes headline news this evening - further reducing the attention given to the debate. All in all good news for Obama.

    By Anonymous Guy, At 17 April, 2008 19:02  

  • agreed. People are too quick to say, 'all is finished'!!. Democrats need to stop being so afraid.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 19:11  

  • Your comments re the Ohio & Dartmouth debates are valid but there are a few small differences in the two contests. In those debates the gotcha questions were based on real issues. In the case of Medvedev, Russia after Putin, and in the Bill Clinton case torture. As well, Russert, in his defence, said he asked the Medvedev question to no one in particular and Hillary jumped in to answer.

    I would have preferred Obama not have commented on last night at all today. It never looks good to whine,even a little.

    A big story this weekend will be the March 20 FEC filings. I expect that Hillary is near broke again and that much of the $20 million she raised in March was for the GE and she has spent everything she brought in since. Obama has a new ticker up looking to get to 1,500,000 doners by May 6th. He's about 150,000 short and looks to be taking on about 20,000 NEW doners a day; if today can be a guide. At $100.00/doner thats $2,000,000.00+ a day. The debate last night will only help him raise more money.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 19:21  

  • Anon 19:21,

    The point of gotcha questions is never substance but tricking them. And what you say about Medvedev is not true. I am not sure if there is a video available, but the question was clearly aimed at Clinton.

    By Blogger Taniel, At 17 April, 2008 20:11  

  • Taniel:I have a different opinion of gotcha questions but it's not a point I care to debate. I do agree they have no place in primary debates. As to Russert's Medvedev question, that is what I heard him say in the post debate discussions on MSNBC. I am sure someone will be able to prove the point one way or the other.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 20:28  

  • Here is the video of the Medvedev exchange: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi90GG7sams

    It looks like the very beginning is missing so it is unclear whether the first part of the question was asked to Clinton (so if he did not you are right that she jumped in). But the "what is his name" came after and was directly aimed at Clinton. So in a sense we are both right.

    By Blogger Taniel, At 17 April, 2008 21:08  

  • Taniel: Whether or not it was aimed at Clinton was not the point Iwas making. It was still a unprofessional thing for any debate moderator to do. I thought the first ABC debate was one of the best of the early ones and was very disappointed at last nights affair.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 17 April, 2008 21:34  

  • I didn't watch the Ohio debate, but if it was more "gotcha" questions, then it was just as an abandonment of journalistic responsibility as last night's.

    Just because it was done before doesn't make it right in either case. It was wrong both times.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 17 April, 2008 22:18  

  • I definitely agree with you Taniel that the problems with the 21st debate has to be looked with perspective. I do feel that last year and earlier this year the media was almost clearly against Clinton, but in the Ohio debate as well as the others there wasn't as much outrage because in a sense it was expected that Clinton, with the her past and the fact she was the frontrunner from the first speculation of 2008 to after Iowa, frontrunner again from New Hampshire to after South Carolina when Obama started his winning streak. I guess that some Obama supporters (and I myself am a Obama supporter as I voted for him in Maryland Primary) have a double standard when it comes to what treatment is fair and which is unfair.

    By Anonymous jaxx raxor, At 17 April, 2008 22:46  

  • jaxx raxor is right, dsimon is in denial. Obama is in for a bruising in the media. The frontrunner gets all the flak. The unexplained delay in the beatings is really favoritism toward Obama. Is that violent enough vocabulary for you Obamans? You people seem desensitized to your own peoples' language. I'd rather your side would just tone it down.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 18 April, 2008 07:33  

  • dsimon is in denial.

    About what? I simply wrote that it's and abdication of journalistic responsibility to play "gotcha" or focus on the trivial at the expense of real issues--the actual job that we're electing someone to perform. And that I'd apply that no matter who is the frontrunner.

    Sure, give politicians the flack. That's what the press should do. But it would help if they did it on things that matter, such as Social Security, Iraq policy, energy policy, budgetary policy. You know, legislative proposals that they will sign or veto. That doesn't sound like denial; that sounds like reality to me. The denial is implying that being on a Board with someone somehow imparts that person's beliefs to you. Surely that doesn't serve anyone's process on how to vote.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 18 April, 2008 09:11  

  • It wasn't the board part, it was the campaign event hosted by Ayers. And since you people all thought the unfair treatment of Hillary was fine in the past, an indictment of the press now is just denial. The fact is that Obama and Hillary agree on issues and the real substance is Obama's overwhelming baggage. The press is focused on the substance. Allowing a nominee to go forward that gives McCain a way to avoid all the relevant issues by attacking on character and ethical weaknesses is foolish. The GE debates with Obama will be only on his bad judgement and misleading statements. McCain will have no problem destroying Barack and protecting the status quo.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 18 April, 2008 13:03  

  • And since you people all thought the unfair treatment of Hillary was fine in the past, an indictment of the press now is just denial.

    Who is "you people"? Not me. I always want debates on substance. I think most people do.

    The press is focused on the substance.

    Wearing or not wearing a flag pin is substance? Do you really think that the first 45 minutes of the debate was a good use of time and there were no other more important topics to discuss? Instead of rushing through Social Security, the candidates could have been asked why the benefits age should not be raised as people live longer and healthier. They could have been pressed harder on whether they'd really pull troops out of Iraq regardless of conditions on the ground. They could have been asked about public campaign financing. Instead, we got lapel pins and Bosnia, on which there was nothing new to add.

    If an "issue" is whatever people happen to be talking about, then what they like for breakfast could be an "issue." But it wouldn't be one that would help us decide how good they'd be in the job. That's why the debate seemed so bad to so many, and perhaps people are finally catching on.

    It wasn't the board part, it was the campaign event hosted by Ayers.

    If I were associated with the beliefs of every host of a campaign event I attended, I'd have contradictory opinions on everything. Plus you'd have to include Clinton's cozying up to arch-enemy Richard Scaife. But I don't play the guilt-by-association game. Seems like more in the public are realizing that too.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 18 April, 2008 16:03  

  • Nash McCabe (the flag pin lady) was quoted on ajc.com back around April 7th as saying How can I vote for a President who won't wear a flag pin?" (I thought I read that in the Wash. Post but maybe not)For the media and others to focus so much on such an asinine issue shows me how and why we have such a moron in the White House now (Plus the fact there are millions of Nash McCabe's)I expect a lot more of this dribble from the MSM in the GE. God help us all.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 18 April, 2008 16:43  

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