Co-moderator of first Dem primary debate on NBC: Partisan conspiracy theorist Rachel Maddow

Just what we needed. Ninety minutes of questions about Trump, Russia, and smelters.

Has Fox News ever let Hannity co-moderate a debate, even a primary debate? He’s a hardcore partisan and occasional conspiracy theorist too, just like Maddow, but he’s been there for almost 25 years and I don’t recall him ever being given a seat at the table on debate night. Maybe that’s an internal thing at Fox, with the network insisting on a firm separation between its “news” team and its “opinion” team to help shield itself from criticism from the left that it’s in the tank for Republicans. That may be true with respect to the opinion side like Hannity, Fox seems to say, but for a major news event like a presidential debate we send only the fair-and-balanced news people.

It may also be, though, that Fox expects it wouldn’t be allowed to get away with adding Hannity as a moderator the way NBC will get away with this. Maddow, after all, is a Serious Person. A Rhodes Scholar! She doesn’t give you low-rent crankery like the Seth Rich stuff Hannity once pushed. She gives you only the choicest high-end Russiagate crankery. She’s the thinking man’s crackpot. And of course, unlike Fox, NBC’s news team is [deep breath] impartial. And so:

The first debate of the Democratic presidential primary will be moderated by Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, José Díaz-Balart of Telemundo, and the MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow, NBC News announced on Tuesday…

For many Democratic voters, the debate will be the first opportunity to compare presidential contenders on the same stage, albeit across two consecutive nights. Ten candidates will appear each night, but the party has not yet announced which 20 contenders have met the party-mandated criteria for the debate, which is determined by the Democratic National Committee based on a mix of national polls and quantity of campaign donors.

This isn’t her first rodeo. The last time she moderated a Democratic debate, you may recall, it ended with hugs for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Two points in NBC’s defense, one minor and one major. The minor point is that Maddow is unlike Hannity in one important sense, which is that she seems to have no favorites among the field. It was obvious in 2015-16 whom Hannity favored, although he half-heartedly maintained his “I’m agnostic” posture until the tail end of the primaries. It’s safe to say that Maddow would prefer a candidate of the left to one of the center but she doesn’t seem to have strong preferences among the individual candidates. Dems don’t need to worry about her going easier or harder on anyone at the debate — although if anyone’s getting a softball, it’s unlikely to be Joe Biden.

The major point is that partisans are arguably better suited to moderate primary debates than “impartial” news people are. Who’s more likely to have their finger on the pulse of what Democratic voters are interested in, Chuck Todd, Savannah Guthrie, or Rachel Maddow? It’s not as if Maddow’s unaccustomed to a Q&A format either. If she were a radio host, soliloquizing each day for hours on end, one might reasonably wonder what she’s doing conducting a de facto group interview at a debate. But Maddow does do interviews on her nightly show. In fact, given the realities of the “Maddow primary” that’s been playing out on MSNBC this year, it may be that she’s interviewed more of the Democratic presidential candidates than Chuck Todd or Lester Holt has.

What’s wrong with having a partisan commentator at a primary debate, asks Phil Klein? In fact, what’s wrong with having partisans from both sides at a primary debate?

I have long been a believer that ideological media figures immersed in the issues of concern to their audiences can help raise issues that would not occur to other reporters. This is especially important during a primary, when the purpose of the debate is to draw candidates out on their differences and help a party’s voters determine who should be their nominee…

Maddow should use the debate as an opportunity to press the candidates on issues that are of concern to her liberal audience that may not obviously occur to her co-moderators. And hopefully the model of having some members of the ideological media moderate primary debates becomes a more common practice.

In my ideal world, primary debates would have sharp questioners such as Jake Tapper and Chris Wallace paired with ideological media figures of both sides of the political spectrum. Yes, to me it would be interesting to see how adroit candidates are when responding to questions from ideological opponents as well, because it provides an insight into how they may handle the general election.

What grates about Maddow being named as a moderator isn’t the fact that she’s a partisan but that she’s being rewarded by her network after trafficking for years in Russiagate hype that fizzled overnight after Mueller submitted his report. Her biggest claim to fame this year has been getting a momentous question — whether the president colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election — spectacularly wrong. Now she’s being given a plum news assignment. But look: Her ratings are what they are (or were what they were, I should say). She has a big audience and she’s unquestionably a media figure with some influence over mainstream Democratic political junkies. If she weren’t, candidates wouldn’t be seeking her out for interviews after launching their campaigns. It would be weird, frankly, if NBC excluded her from this event considering how much face time she’s had with members of the field. If you object because she’s in the tank for her party and prone to believing outlandishly villainous things about her opponents because it flatters her to do so, welcome to America 2019.