Predictably, the progressive blogosphere has erupted in outrage at ABC, Charles Gibson, and George Stephanopolous for their performance in last night’s Democratic presidential debate. Michelle and Joe Gandelman have great roundups for a comprehensive look at the reaction, but the criticism falls heavily on the first 50 minutes of the debate. Bloggers vent their spleen at the focus on campaign gaffes, stumbles, personal and political associations, and they have declared ABC a tool of Karl Rove or the resurrection of Lee Atwater as a result.
I’m not sure what anyone expected. All of the questions asked were legitimate questions, and the time spent on them had more to do with followups by the candidates than with the moderators. None of them had been asked in a debate before last night, and indeed most of these issues had only been reported since the last debate. ABC didn’t break a scoop last night; all of the issues they raised in that first 50 minutes have appeared in both major media outlets and in each others’ advertising.
Part of the problem is that the Democrats have had over a dozen of these nationally-televised debates, and the policy differences have mostly disappeared between the two candidates. Obama and Hillary have both adopted John Edwards’ populism for the last three months and their platforms have become nearly identical. Their entire race has come down to competence, personal narratives, and identity politics. Did they expect ABC to ignore that, and to offer bland policy questions at the expense of asking about the controversies that have erupted in the last two months based on the kind of race into which this has developed?
And what were those topics? The Tuzla Dash revealed a deep dishonesty from Hillary Clinton, a willingness to lie about her personal history on at least four occasions — and doing so on the campaign trail. Barack Obama started Crackerquiddick by delighting a collection of San Francisco elite to denigrate religious faith, gun ownership, and (oddly) protectionism as an irrational response to bitterness over government’s failure to guarantee personal success. Jeremiah Wright’s rabid demagoguery for years supposedly escaped Obama’s notice, but he also acted to keep Wright off the dais at one campaign event because of his combustible speech — and Wright was on Obama’s campaign team. Obama worked with former domestic terrorist William Ayers in building his political base before and after 9/11.
When all one has is personal narrative, expecting the nation’s support on the basis of a personal story arc rather than any relative experience at governing — a description that fits both candidates — they shouldn’t act shocked when that narrative comes into question.
But even when issues got discussed, neither of them performed well at all. Obama exposed himself as completely clueless on capital gains taxes, and showed that he wants government to act to redistribute wealth not because it’s efficient but because he wants life to be “fair”. He didn’t comprehend Gibson’s repeated reminders that revenues increased when those taxes dropped, and that meant more wealth to redistribute. Hillary and Obama both somehow concluded that the Constitution’s 2nd amendment applies to individuals, but that local communities can override the Constitution, which left both Gibson and Stephanopolous gobsmacked. The last 50 minutes was almost as bad for both as the first 50 minutes, only more dull.
The progressive outrage is misplaced. They should be angry that they only have these two flawed candidates left as choices. ABC asked appropriate questions. Progressives just didn’t want to hear them.