Sunday, April 20, 2008

In Praise of Bad Debates

I guess I'm a little late to the table on this, but I didn't actually see the ABC Democratic presidential debate the other night. I saw plenty of snippets and highlights, so I have a pretty good idea what transpired, but I had other plans which were, I think it's fair to say, infinitely more attractive than watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama lock horns for the 237th time.

Anyway, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos have been pilloried ever since for the gotcha quality of the questions they asked the two Democratic contenders. One after another, the veteran newsreader and his diminutive sidekick inquired about each of the mini-controversies that have recently plagued the campaign. Obama seemed to get the worst of it, which greatly offended his blogosphere cheerleaders, but he's the frontrunner now, and that's the way these things go. Though Clinton did respond to pointed questions about her honesty, Obama had to fend off queries about his supposed elitism, his relationship with his former pastor, his refusal to wear an American flag lapel pin, and his acquaintance with a neighbor who did some bad things as a 1960s era radical.

As I said, I only watched the post-debate coverage and a YouTube video or two, but Obama seemed very much thrown off his game by these attacks. His responses were often defensive and much of the self-confidence and eloquence that has characterized his performance on the stump seemed, at least temporarily, to elude him. He had his moments, of course, but if he performs like this against John McCain in the fall, he will do himself little good.

But mostly, what the audience witnessed on Wednesday was not so much the failure of journalism as the ultimate futility of endless debates during the primary season. The truth is, has been, and will remain that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama differ only on the margins of most issues, if that. A debate between two people who agree on almost everything is simply not going to be terribly edifying. Only policy wonks and diehard candidate supporters really want to hear yet another retelling of the subtle distinctions between Clinton's health care proposal and Obama's, especially when neither will likely get Congress to pass an unamended plan. As for the Iraq War, regardless of what took place five years ago, they're both against it now and their blueprints for withdrawal are essentially identical.

So what exactly were Gibson and Stephanopoulos supposed to ask about? For better or worse (which is to say, for worse) network news departments are now required to be profit generating engines first and journalistic resources second. Presumably, ABC wants an audience and Wonkfest 2008 would not have retained more than a handful of viewers after about the first five minutes. It's not 1960 anymore—we've had plenty of substantive debates and anyone who desperately needs to know the candidates' take on trade with Greenland need only punch up a couple of websites to find out.

Look, at this point the only relevant question facing Democratic voters is which of these ideological twins can defeat John McCain and bring an end to the ruinous Bush reign. I realize electability is a difficult concept to nail down, but really, it's all we have left. Ask anyone but the geekiest of the geeks why they prefer Clinton to Obama, or vice versa. You will, almost 99.9% of the time, get an answer that has nothing to do with the policy differences between the two. The closest you might come is if someone mentions Clinton's vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution, but that's not a policy difference, either.

If there is any advantage to a long primary election season, dragged out over four or five months, it's the fact that the candidates get poked and probed for weaknesses. We find out what where they are vulnerable to attack in the fall and how they hold up in the face of withering assault. John Kerry's early triumph four years ago deprived us of that opportunity, and by the time we learned about the man's abundant deficiencies as a candidate, it was too late. I presume that no Democrat wants to see that happen again.

In that respect, Gibson and Stephanopoulos were asking exactly the right questions Wednesday night. If you read any of the blogs that attacked the ABC duo this week, you will know that they have spent an inordinate amount of time fretting about the very issues (or non-issues, if you prefer) that were covered during the debate. Wouldn't it have been nice two decades ago if we had learned during the primary season just how ineffectively Michael Dukakis would respond the attacks on his patriotism? Of course the attacks were petty, unfair, and un-American. But that didn't stop them from coming and it didn't reduce their effectiveness.

If it were up to me, I'd schedule one more debate. This time I'd hold it on the Fox News Channel and invite former journalist Brit Hume and the second stringers he laughably calls the "Fox News All-Stars" to ask the questions. And the only ground rule would be that the Foxsters would have to hold nothing back. Ask about Jeremiah Wight and Bill Ayers and Mark Rich. Hell, ask about Vince Foster. Give Clinton and Obama a dress rehearsal for the kind of battering they can expect when the Republicans go into full attack mode later this year.

See, the good thing, as I mentioned yesterday, is that John McCain has yet to face the music. And when he does, it may be the GOP that suffers from buyer's remorse. Let him enjoy his moment in the sun and don't worry about the pettiness of debate moderators. Just be glad that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be nearly impossible to sucker punch.

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