OMIGOD—THEY DID IT AGAIN: Lets hope last night is the very last time. Lets hope the Democratic Party never lets NBC run another debate.
In a word, the first half hour of last nights debate was stunning. To understand why, lets think back to October 30, when Tim Russert and his trophy wife, Brian Williams, hosted an earlier Dem debate.
On October 30, Hillary Clinton was the clear front-runner for the Dem nomination. And the natives were getting very restless in certain parts of the press corps nature preserve. On Hardball, Chris Matthews had spent the previous week insisting that Barack Obama had to use the coming debate to step up his attacks on Clinton. On Monday, October 29, for example, Matthews began his program by reading a speech attacking Clinton—a speech representing what I think Obama should say starting tomorrow night at the big MSNBC debate.
But then, many of Obamas other supporters felt the way Matthews did. The previous day, the New York Times had run a front-page report under this headline: Obama promises a forceful stand against Clinton. In an interview, Obama said he was going to go after Clinton more aggressively (a perfectly appropriate thing to do). Adam Nagourney summed it up like this, and he may as well have been describing Matthews: Mr. Obama's vow to go on the offensive comes...after a long period in which his aides, donors and other supporters have battled—and in some cases shared—the perception that he has not exhibited the aggressiveness demanded by presidential politics.
According to Nagourney, Obamas supporters wanted him to be more aggressive. Well, so did Hardball crackpot Chris Matthews. Thats where Russert and Williams came in.
In the October 30 debate, Williams threw the evenings first question to Obama. It was—surprise of surprises!—an invitation to attack:
WILLIAMS (10/30/07): Senator Obama, well begin with you. You gave an interview to the New York Times, over the weekend, pledging in it to be more aggressive, to be tougher in your campaign against your chief rival for the nomination, the leader among Democrats so far, Senator Clinton, who is here next to you tonight. To that end, Senator, you said that Senator Clinton was trying to sound Republican, trying to vote Republican on national security issues. And that was, quote, bad for the country and ultimately bad for the Democrats. That is a strong charge, as youre aware. Specifically, what are the issues where you, Senator Obama, and Senator Clinton have differed, where you think she has sounded or voted like a Republican?
There was nothing wrong with that question. But Obama gave a fairly weak reply—an answer that was neither precise nor very responsive. (Well first of all, I think some of this stuff gets over-hyped, he began.) No matter! Without follow-up or clarification, Russert turned to John Edwards, asking him to go after Clinton (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/07). And from that point, the chase was on. Russert and Williams staged what may have been the most remarkable debate in presidential history. The pair went after Clinton all night, with a long string of opposition research style questions—questions which were often factually bogus or grossly misleading. Persistently, they questioned Clinton about her bad character—then asked Obama and Edwards to comment. Midway through, things had gotten so absurd that Bill Richardson said he wouldnt play—but Russert and Williams kept it up for two hours. One thing was clear from the Welch Boys display: If Obama wouldnt go after Clinton, Russert and his trophy wife would.
Afterwards, pundits lined up to say something baldly inaccurate. We always treat the front-runners this way, a long line of fantasists said.
Lets review. On October 30, Russert and Williams went after Clinton for two solid hours. We always treat front-runners this way, we were told. But omigod! For at least the first half hour of last nights debate, Russert and Williams did the same damn thing—even though Obama is now the clear Democratic front-runner. They pounded at Clinton—then asked Obama to comment. Here at THE HOWLER, we watched the midnight re-airing of the debate—and, according to our notes, the first substantive question to Obama didnt occur until 12:27. (Before that, Obama had only been asked to comment on Clintons answers.) And the questioning of Obama didnt last long. At 12:31, Russert posed an overtly hostile question—to Clinton, of course.
We Dems have a new front-runner now; we thought he was frequently brilliant last night. But the first half hour of last nights debate was a virtual replay of October 30. Jack Welchs Lost Boys were at it again. They were choosing our nominee for us.
Of course, Russert and Williams have behaved very badly toward Big Major Dems many times in the past, all the way back to the 1990s. (You never hear this history, of course. Liberal caddies refuse to tell you.) To all appearances, Jack Welch may have known what he was doing when he put We Irish in charge at his network—when he hired a trio of home-boy Reagan Democrats and turned them loose against Clinton and Gore. But then, We Irish have played the role of lead spear-chuckers in the sixteen-year war that is nearing an end. Just consider Maureen Dowds latest New York Times column.
Lets face it: Under prevailing rules, We Irish dont have to pretend to make sense when we go after the Clintons or Gore. Heres part of Dowds column this morning. Do editors read her at al?
DOWD (2/27/08): Hillary understands the perils of glitter. The coda of her campaign has been a primal scream against the golden child of Chicago, a clanging and sometimes churlish warning that ''all that glitters is not gold.''
David Brody, the Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent whose interview with Hillary aired Tuesday, said the senator seemed ''dumbfounded'' by the Obama sensation.
She has been so discombobulated that she has ignored some truisms of politics that her husband understands well: Sunny beats gloomy. Consistency beats flipping. Bedazzling beats begrudging. Confidence beats whining.
When Maureen Dowd writes about primal screams, maybe you just have to sit back and laugh. But readers, is Dowd required to make any sense? She and her cohort have repeatedly trashed Bill Clinton, sometimes correctly, for his angry tirades in the past several months. Indeed, a front-page report in this mornings Times is all about his wild conduct. (Headline: After Attacks, Bill Clinton Is Reined In.) But so what? The rules of the game have long been clear: When We Irish go after these Dems, theres no requirement to make sense at all! Dowd has mocked Bill Clintons anger for months. Today, though, the gentlemans sunny demeanor is used as a club against wifey!
Other nonsense litters Dowds piece. (In a bit of open hallucination, she refers to the press corps utter open-mindedness toward Hillary Clinton.) And of course, shes allowed to smudge the facts of the latest Matt Drudge smear. But We Irish were in action again last night too. Lets hope its the last time we see those Lost Boys at a Democratic debate.
Question: Is it time for Dems to consider an idea—having someone other than journalists host our partys debates?
TO BE DUKAKISED, NOT GORED: Few voters have heard the journalistic history of the past sixteen years; liberal caddies to the press corps have simply refused to present it. In last nights live blog at TPM, for example, a slippery fellow slipped away from his inexcusable treatment of the latest Drudge smear. (See the pure BS at 9:07—then enjoy a mordant chuckle.) But then again, were all Drudge now, thanks to caddies like Marshall. And Drum. (Weve really reached the barrels bottom when were out there reciting for Drudge.)
Josh did get his shorts in a wad when Russert questioned Obama about Louis Farrakhan. We wouldnt have pursued that topic ourselves. But Josh is so full of self-defeating advice that we offer the following palliative:
If the RNC gets its way, Obama is going to get Dukakised in the coming months. Our guess: In the main, he will not be treated as a liar/flip-flopper/reinventer, as Clinton, Gore and Kerry were treated. Instead, hell be treated as an unsettling alien presence, much as Dukakis was played (except more so). The Democratic Party has never nominated a more decent person than Michael Dukakis. But by the time the RNC got through, he was a person with a funny name and olive skin who: 1) had a problem with the pledge of allegiance; 2) looked funny riding around in a tank; 3) may have had some sort of mental illness (that was voiced by Reagan himself); 4) was a card-carrying member of the ACLU; and 5) had released Willie Horton. Almost surely, similar themes will be voiced against Obama—and yes, theres material to work with. (The fact that you dont care about some concern doesnt mean it isnt a danger.) In the process, youre going to hear a lot about Obamas minister, Jeremiah Wright. Josh didnt notice, but thats where Russert ended up with his questions about Farrakhan. And this is a potential problem in the fall, although Josh doesnt seem to know this. (What a gigantic surprise! This is the man who thought that Gore had everything going for him!)
Wright has said and done various things that are, for better or worse, substantially out of the mainstream. Personally, we dont care about these matters, but some other voters most likely will—depending on how these matters are treated. Obama handled Russerts questions extremely well last night (although Russert didnt push the Wright angle as hard as others will). But liberals and progressives need to get their own thoughts together about these questions. Unless we dont care who wins.
Yelling race/race/race has been very effective in this years Democratic campaign. A long string of hacks and pander-bears turned the Clintons into slobbering racists; this approach played a significant role in the campaigns turn-around. But almost surely, that approach will work less well in the general election. When questions are raised about Obamas (fairly close) relationship with Wright, it wont be helpful to play the race card. Dems will need more skillful answers—if we want to win.
On January 15, Richard Cohen wrote this column about the Farrakhan/Wright matter. (Last year, Wright gave Farrakhan an award.) Cohen is a Farrakhan absolutist; he has written similar columns about a wide range of people down through the years, including Colin Powell. (And Joe Lieberman—in October 2000.) But others will raise this issue too, and Dems need to get their answers together. Yelling race/race/race worked in the primary—and thats how some liberals responded to Cohen. But it wont work as well in the general election. If we care about whos going to win, we need to consider that now.
In his post, Josh didnt seem to understand where this matter is going. If Democrats plan to win in the fall, we need to stop listening to caddies like Josh and deal with some basic realities. Obama answered those questions quite well last night—but many such questions are going to come as he gets Dukakised. Some of the questions will be outrageous and ugly—but the question about his (fairly close) relationship with his (fairly unconventional) minister pretty much isnt.
We need to plan for what is to come. On this matter, Josh displayed a bit of a tin ear last night. Then again, people like Josh were just so brilliant during the War Against Gore—and later, again, on the road to Iraq! Given the gentlemans endless clairvoyance, why would anyone listen to blundering screeds from people like us—from people who understood the shape of Campaign 2000 on the very day it began? Why not go with a boy like Josh, who was till pretending he didnt know squat in the summer of 2002? Josh was playing you for fools at that time—just as he did with Dear Matt.
Special report: Sexing up McCain!
CORRECTION: In yesterdays Part 2, we misstated the number of references to the Keating 5 matter during Campaign 2000. In the twelve-month period we reviewed (April 1999 through March 2000), McCains connection to Charles Keating was mentioned 16 times in the Times. (We had searched on McCain AND Keating 5, instead of using the broader McCain AND Keating. Dumb.) Unchanged: Most of these cites were fleeting references, a single sentence or less. As we noted, when Jill Abramson wrote the Times full report on the matter, she said (three times) that McCain had been exonerated in the matter. Well be correcting the inaccurate numbers in yesterdays post.
PART 3—REINVENTING 2000: Something seems to have changed at the New York Times when it comes to the secular saint, John McCain (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/26/08). Presumably, this is the same John McCain who sought the White House in Campaign 2000. But youd have a hard time knowing that from Jim Rutenbergs front-page report, which appeared in last Wednesdays paper. At one point in his report, for example, Rutenberg described the GOPs 2000 primary race. But uh-oh! If you read the Times during Campaign 2000, you may not recognize this account of the Bush-McCain battle:
RUTENBERG (2/21/08): Mr. McCain made loosening the grip of special interests the central cause of his 2000 presidential campaign, inviting scrutiny of his own ethics. His Republican rival, George W. Bush, accused him of ''double talk'' for soliciting campaign contributions from companies with interests that came before the powerful Senate commerce committee, of which Mr. McCain was chairman. Mr. Bush's allies called Mr. McCain ''sanctimonious.''
At one point, his campaign invited scores of lobbyists to a fund-raiser at the Willard Hotel in Washington. While Bush supporters stood mocking outside, the McCain team tried to defend his integrity by handing the lobbyists buttons reading ''McCain voted against my bill.'' Mr. McCain himself skipped the event, an act he later called ''cowardly.''
Fascinating! McCains approach to Campaign 2000 invit[ed] scrutiny of his own ethics. But this scrutiny was hard to find in the New York Times during the campaign itself. Most of what Rutenberg writes here is accurate. At one point, for example, Candidate Bush did accuse McCain of double talk because of his campaign solicitations; indeed, his campaign kept it up for several weeks. But uh-oh! The Times discussed Bushs accusation just once—in a February 5, 2000 report which ran just 311 words! Meanwhile, did Bushs allies really call McCain sanctimonious? Maybe. But heres the total coverage any such charges attracted in the real-time Times. Richard Berke did the honors—in a report about the way Bush and McCain were being so nice to each other:
BERKE (12/5/99): [A]dvisers to Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush concede that their candidates are practicing smart politics. Call it the smother-him-in-kindness approach.
"My guess is that neither one likes the other nearly as much as they are pretending to," a top strategist for one of the campaigns said of Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain. "You can tell by the way their supporters talk about the other guy: the people around Bush think McCain is sanctimonious and the people around McCain think Bush is a lightweight."
Should Mr. Bush or Mr. McCain become the Republican nominee, the calculation is that the nominee would stand a better chance of winning support from the other if he had not called him ugly names in the primaries.
That was it. Berkes whole point was that Bush himself was not speaking ill of McCain. (Headline: Two G.O.P. Foes Locked in a Sweetness Offensive.) And how about that fund-raiser at the Willard—the one McCain threw for all those lobbyists? On February 11, 2000, John Broder reported the event in the Times. But Broder did not report the fact that Bush supporters stood mocking outside; when he mentioned those McCain voted against my bill buttons, he didnt suggest that McCain had tried to defend his integrity by passing them out. Quite the contrary: Broders description ended—how else?—with McCain being praised as a hero! In fact, McCain was being praised as a hero by a lobbyist whose interests he had dissed:
BRODER (2/11/08): In a ballroom of the Willard Hotel here, about 200 contributors, many of them lawyers and lobbyists, heard Mr. McCain give a version of his stump speech.
"We want to take the special interests out of Washington," he told the representatives of many of these special interests. "Until the last breath I draw, I will fight to stop soft money and to give this government back to the American people."
The crowd applauded politely.
A few moments later, Mr. McCain said, "There are good and honorable people watching tonight in Washington, and they are tired of being dunned" for huge political contributions.
The crowd applauded enthusiastically.
Hal Furman, a lobbyist for utilities, said he supported Mr. McCain even though the senator had opposed an airport expansion project of one of Mr. Furman's clients.
"I love John McCain," Mr. Furman said. "He's a genuine American hero. I've never been more honored or proud to support anyone for president in my life."
Did McCain later call himself cowardly for skipping this event? Possibly. But the Times never reported any such statement—and Broders report explained that McCain was campaigning in South Carolina; indeed, he was hooked up by satellite this night to 17 sites around the nation. In that sense, Rutenberg was a bit slick last week; absent-mindedly, he forgot to explain why McCain couldnt be at the Willard event. Beyond that, its unclear why McCain would have avoided this event, since Broders report seemed to suggest that the Willard was crammed with people who regarded him as a hero.
In short, this brief part of Rutenbergs report has a peculiar aspect. Here we go again, dear readers! Once again, Rutenberg was describing Campaign 2000 in a way that is hard to reconcile with the coverage found in the Times in real time. Reading Rutenberg last week, it almost seemed like the New York Times had decided to reverse its take on McCain! Hed been portrayed as a hero during Campaign 2000. Now, Rutenberg was recasting the tale in a way that made him seem like a fraud.
Why in the world would the great New York Times choose to reinvent itself so?
Our answer to that will involve speculation—speculation well offer tomorrow. Before we do, well try to make sure we understand how thoroughly Rutenberg has recast the past. Well take a look at the way he portrays those letters for money-bags Paxson.
TOMORROW—PART 4: Speculation! Why have they flipped?