Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 April 2008

The Philadelphia “Debate”

The word “debate” is in quotation marks because last night’s spectacle was nothing of the kind. It was an exercise in bias and triviality so appalling as to leave little doubt that we are a society in precipitous decline. It was the modern equivalent of ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses,” by which Caesar and other early demagogues manipulated the Roman electorate and transformed Roman democracy into empire.

Let’s start with unfairness. One of two moderators of the debate was George Stephanopoulos. For several years, he was a senior advisor for policy and strategy to Bill Clinton as president. He also served as a leading member of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, right alongside James Carville. In other words, he owes everything he is to Bill Clinton, and he got his start in adult life as a Clinton partisan.

If Stephanopoulos were a judge, he would have to recuse himself from handling any matter involving the Clintons. Apparently journalists’ sense of fairness is less acute than judges’. ABC, which ran this sham of a debate, thought there was nothing wrong with having such a man moderate what may be Hillary Clinton’s last stand as a presidential candidate.

The results were predictable. The first segment of the debate—nearly one-third in length—was an exercise in “gotcha” aimed almost entirely at Senator Obama. It started with his alleged “gaffe” regarding the “bitter” feelings of rural and small-town voters. It continued with minute examination of his relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It ended with a new charge of guilt by association: Obama’s acquaintance with a former member of the Weather Underground who had engaged in violent political activity 40 years ago, during the Vietnam Era, when Obama was eight years old.

The moderators even found time to question Obama about not wearing American flag pins. No doubt to give the barest appearance of impartiality, they put a question to Hillary on her lying about her braving sniper fire in Bosnia, for which she fulsomely excused herself.

The expressed reason for this journalistic lynching was the notion that, if ABC or Hillary didn’t do it, then the Republicans would. So we saw an unusual spectacle: supposedly neutral journalists and a fellow Democrat adopting the worst of Republican distraction-and-scare tactics on the pretext that Obama still needs more seasoning.

The end of the debate focused on guns. A question posed to both candidates sought to expose their solid record of support for gun control to a state whose rural residents are supposed to be passionate about their guns.

This time the questioning at least had the appearance of impartiality, for both candidates had precisely the same position. Both reaffirmed their record of support for gun control in crowded, crime-ridden cities but avowed support for local variations in rural areas.

Yet viewers attuned to subtle bias might have noticed an interesting point. The debate began with a question on Obama’s “bitterness” remark, which related voters’ anger at their economic mistreatment to their obsession with wedge issues like guns. The debate ended with a discussion of guns evocative of that remark. Viewers who tuned out early in disgust would be left thinking about that remark. So would those who tuned in late. A Karl Rove bent on exploiting this wedge issue in rural Pennsylvania to damage Obama’s campaign could not have planned the timing better.

In between the focus on Obama’s statements, his associations, the absence of flag pins on his lapels, and guns there was, inexplicably, some discussion of serious issues actually facing the nation. Both candidates committed to withdrawing troops from Iraq without much regard for potential future misgivings of commanders on the ground. Both reaffirmed their intention not to let Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and to retaliate against Iran for any nuclear attack on Israel.

But there was not a single question on al Qaeda, the war on terror, global warming, infrastructure, energy independence, our schools, our funding crisis in science, our imperial presidency, torture, Guantánamo, warantless wiretapping, civil liberties, the mortgage crisis, the credit crisis, or health care.

With his usual precision and restraint, Obama described the debate as follows:
    “[T]his is a defining moment in our history. We are going to be tackling some of the biggest issues that any president has dealt with in the last 40 years. Our economy is teetering not just on the edge of recession, but potentially worse. Our foreign policy is in a shambles. We are involved in two wars. People’s incomes have not gone up, and their costs have. And we’re seeing greater income inequality now than any time since the 1920s.”

    “In those circumstances, for us to be obsessed with this—these kinds of [gaffes and associations] I think is a mistake.”

This travesty occurred a stone’s throw from Constitution Hall—the very place where our Founders debated and ratified our Constitution. The contrast between what took place before the television cameras last night and what happened in the same venue 217 years ago could not have been starker.

Our Founders debated the form and structure of our government with a deep knowledge of history, a brilliance that few in politics can match today, and “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” They had staked their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” on our Revolution, in part to abolish the injustice of guilt by association that occupied the first third of the last night’s spectacle. Apparently having no sense of irony, ABC had the temerity to place excerpts from the Constitution on screen after commercial breaks.

Could our Founders be resurrected and subjected to last night’s proceedings, there is little doubt how they would react. They would think about how much they staked on their new enterprise in liberty. The would reflect on how hard they worked and fought for it, and how deeply they thought about it. They would recall how much they debated history and government—going back to ancient Rome—and how squarely they faced the grave issues of their time.

Then they would do what anyone does upon seeing his life’s work and deepest aspirations debased beyond measure. They would vomit.

Correction and Apology: For several hours this post erroneously attributed last night’s journalistic malpractice to MSNBC, rather than ABC. I regret the error and apologize to MSNBC.


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