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A FAKE THEORY DISSOLVES! Oddly, Russert and his trophy wife forgot to “gang up on the front-runner”: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 6, 2008

COLLINS BY THE NUMBERS: Maureen Dowd’s twice-weekly nervous breakdown may draw attention from her colleague, Gail Collins. That would be a crying shame, because Collins is every bit as big an upper-class hack as her better-known lunatic consoeur.

This morning’s column is Typical Collins—Collins by the numbers:

In paragraphs 1 and 2, Collins rolls her eyes at the thought of yet another big primary. Darlings, how will we survive it?

In paragraph 3, we get a complaint about Clinton’s “boring round-table discussions.”

In paragraph 4, we’re told that Obama plans to conduct “mind-numbing” policy chats of his own. (“I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we’re all looking forward to that.”)

In paragraph 5, we see Deepest Collins—the soul of an upper-class darling:

COLLINS (3/6/08): Ohio was great. I don’t know how anybody could not love a primary where the big scandal involves gossip about Nafta among Canadian diplomats.

Translation: NAFTA doesn’t affect my high kind! You working-class Ohio slugs can just go f*ck yourselves.

But then, Collins peddles this snark in every column. Question: If you couldn’t read their columns, would you have the slightest idea that such Antionettes exist?

A FAKE THEORY DISSOLVES: At the October 30 Democratic debate, Russert and Williams fell on Clinton like a pair of starved Nantucket badgers. They threw oppo research-style questions at her for the bulk of two hours. (Several of Russert’s questions were built around factual errors.) In their questions to Obama and Edwards, they largely cued Clinton’s two opponents to engage in attacks on their rival. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/07 and 11/2/07, for a detailed review of their questions.

In fact, no moderators have ever behaved this way in previous presidential debates. But in the aftermath of the session, Howard Kurtz joined a cast of thousands in explaining the “Lost Boys’” odd behavior. This Q-and-A occurred in a Post on-line chat. Kurtz gave a Standard Response to a very good question:

QUESTION (11/5/07): Do you think Russert and Williams were a little out of line at the last Democratic debate in going after one candidate? Can you think of a precedent where the moderator went after one candidate like that? I'm thinking the last clear frontrunner in the challenging party was Bush in '99, and I don't recall him ever getting it like that from a moderator.

KURTZ: Moderators (as well as rival candidates) often gang up on the front-runner, and that's what Hillary Clinton is. I'd certainly expect her to get more questions than Dennis Kucinich. And the Russert question about whether she supported Eliot Spitzer's policy on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants was entirely fair; it was only her meandering, contradictory answer that made it big news.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

We wonder if the questioner took his cue from our own incomparable work on that 2000 primary (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/02/07). But Kurtz voiced a form of the press corps’ Standard Reaction: We always treat front-runners that way! The claim is patently false, of course. But so what? It was widely expressed.

Front-runners always get treated that way! Three months later, on February 26, we finally got a chance to test this widely-voiced theory. Once again, Russert and Williams were hosting a Dem debate—and this time, the Dems had a new front-runner. This raised an obvious question: Would Russert and Williams gang up on Obama as with Clinton, back in the fall?

Did Jack Welch’s hires “gang up” on Obama? For the sake of establishing the historical record: No, they plainly did not. Instead, they spent the first half hour of a 90-minute debate battering Clinton, who wasn’t the front-runner. It was almost exactly what they had done at the October debate.

For the record, what follows has nothing to do with Obama or Clinton. It’s a comment on the conduct of Russert and Williams. In fact, Russert and Williams didn’t “gang up on the front-runner” in last week’s debate. They didn’t do anything like it.

What did happen at last week’s debate? Let’s run through the actual questions. Last see how the “gang-up” occurred.

Williams opened with the following question for Clinton. (We’ll number the queries as best we can.) In the process, he played tape of a moment on the trail for which she had been widely mocked:

QUESTION 1, WILLIAMS (2/26/08) Thanks to our candidates for being here on a snowy night in the great city of Cleveland, Ohio. A lot has been said since we last gathered in this forum, certainly in the few days since you two last debated. Senator Clinton, in your comments especially, the difference has been striking. And let’s begin by taking a look.

CLINTON (videotape): You know, no matter what happens in this contest—and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored and—

CLINTON (videotape): So shame on you, Barack Obama! It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public! That’s what I expect from you. Meet me in Ohio. Let’s have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign.

WILLIAMS: Senator Clinton, we’re here in Ohio. Senator Obama is here. This is the debate. You would agree the difference in tone over just those 48 hours was striking?

On MSNBC, Clinton had been widely mocked for this “difference in tone”—and that’s where Williams chose to begin. But then, his second question was also for Clinton—and it wasn’t friendly either:

QUESTION 2, WILLIAMS: On the topic of accurate information and to that end, one of the things that has happened over the past 36 hours, a photo went out on the Website, the “Drudge Report,” showing Senator Obama in the native garb of a nation he was visiting, as you have done in a host country on a trip overseas. Matt Drudge, on his Website, said it came from a source inside the Clinton campaign. Can you say unequivocally here tonight it did not?

Again, Williams threw a question at Clinton—not at the front-runner. He (mis)quoted his darling, the loathsome Matt Drudge—then asked Clinton to respond.

There you see the first two questions of last week’s Dem debate. Each was a challenging question—and each was posed to Clinton. But don’t worry—Williams was waiting to question the front-runner too! Here is the handsome anchor’s third question—the question where he finally began to “gang up on the front-runner:”

QUESTION 3, WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, your response.

Go ahead—just laugh out loud! With this ludicrous non-question question, Williams returned to the format of the October 30 debacle, in which a series of hostile questions were thrown at Clinton, with Edwards and Obama asked to give their reactions to her answers. (In October, they were asked several times, quite directly, if they thought her answers were “consistent.”) At the time, we were widely assured that Russert and Williams had acted that way because moderators “often gang up on the front-runner.” But last week, we had a different front-runner—and the first of Jack Welch’s plutocrat hires began by lobbing him softballs! By the way: If Williams had even a modest interest in “ganging up on the front-runner” (or in just being fair), this might have been his third question:

[SUBSTITUTE QUESTION 3] WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, your campaign accused the Clinton campaign of circulating that photograph—acting only on the word of Matt Drudge, a man who has made quite a few errors in the past and isn’t generally perceived as a friend of your party. As you may know, that photo had appeared at conservative web sites for several days before it was posted by Drudge. In actual fact, do you know if anyone on Senator Clinton’s staff sent that photograph to Drudge? If not, why did your campaign make this rather tough accusation?

That’s what NBC’s “Trophy Bride” might have asked—if he had the slightest intention of “ganging up on the front-runner,” or if he just wanted to play the game fair. As it turned out, we didn’t get to hear his planned fourth question; Williams was interrupted as the two Dems initiated a debate of health care. But we can tell you this—his fourth question was going to Clinton again. Here’s what the handsome anchor said before the hopefuls stopped him:

QUESTION 4, WILLIAMS: And, Senator Clinton, on this subject—

At that point, Williams was interrupted by the health care debate. But he was going to question Clinton again—perhaps as part of an elaborate strategy for ganging up on Obama.

So you see the way this debate began—a debate in which the front-runner was Obama. As readers may recall, Obama and Clinton debated health care between themselves for roughly the next ten minutes, while poor Williams tried to put the brakes on the unplanned discussion. (How dare they talk about something important?) Finally, at 9:16 PM Eastern, the “Lost Boy” regained control of the forum. And when he did, he soldiered on—with a question for Clinton again:

QUESTION 5, WILLIAMS: Well, a 16-minute discussion on health care is certainly a start. I’d like to change up—

CLINTON: Well, there’s hardly anything more important. I think it would be good to talk about health care—

WILLIAMS: Well, here’s another important topic, and that’s NAFTA—especially where we’re sitting here tonight. And this is a tough one, depending on who you ask. The Houston Chronicle has called it a “big win” for Texas, but Ohio Democratic Senator Brown, your colleagues in the Senate, has called it a “job-killing” trade agreement. Senator Clinton, you’ve campaigned in south Texas. You’ve campaigned here in Ohio. Who’s right?

That question was fair—and we wouldn’t call it hostile. But Williams was questioning Clinton again—a rather strange way to gang up on Obama. It was at this point that Clinton “whined” about the way she always gets the first questions. But don’t worry! After Clinton gave her reply, Williams questioned Obama:

QUESTION 6, WILLIAMS: Senator, thank you. Before we turn the questioning over to Tim Russert, Senator Obama.

That was it; you can laugh out loud once again! Once again, it’s fairly clear that Williams was not trying to gang up on the front-runner. By now, the debate was roughly twenty minutes along. Williams has asked several hostile questions to Clinton—and he kept asking her rival to comment.

Surely, no one could seriously think that Williams had tried to gang up on Obama. And now, NBC’s glorious “trophy wife” handed the floor to his better half. And wouldn’t you know it? Russert began just as Williams had—with a hostile question for Clinton:

QUESTION 7, RUSSERT: I want to ask you both about NAFTA, because the record I think is clear, and I want— Senator Clinton, Senator Obama said that you did say in 2004, that on balance, NAFTA has been good for New York and America. You did say that.

When President Clinton signed this bill—and this was after he negotiated two new side agreements for labor and environment—President Clinton said it would be a force for economic growth and social progress. You said in ‘96 it was proving its worth as free and fair trade. You said that in 2000, it was a good idea that took political courage.

So your record is pretty clear. Based on that, and what—you’re now expressing your discomfort with it—in the debate that Al Gore had with Ross Perot, Al Gore said the following: “If you don’t like NAFTA and what it’s done, we can get out of it in six months. The president can say to Canada and Mexico, we are out. This has not been a good agreement.” Will you as president say, “We are out of NAFTA in six months?”

“Your record is pretty clear,” Russert said—as he recited selective parts of it. (More on this point below.) Like Williams, Russert was starting with Clinton—and his accusatory tone and selective presentation stamped this as a challenging or hostile question. And uh-oh! Soon after Clinton started to answer, Russert interrupted her, maintaining his hostile tone:

CLINTON (continuing directly from above): I have said that I will renegotiate NAFTA, so obviously you’d have to say to Canada and Mexico that that’s exactly what we’re going to do. But you know, in fairness—

QUESTION 8, RUSSERT: So let me be clear—

CLINTON: Yes, I am saying—

RUSSERT: You will get out, you will notify Mexico and Canada, NAFTA is gone in six months?

In response, Clinton managed to get out a short, cogent answer. But quickly, Russert interrupted again—and again, he continued his hostile questioning of the person who wasn’t the front-runner:

QUESTION 9, RUSSERT (interrupting again): We’re going to get—we’re going to get to Senator Obama. But I want to stay on your comments because this was something that you wrote about as a real success for your husband. You said it was good on balance for New York and America in 2004. And now you’re in Ohio, and you’re words are much different, Senator. The record is very clear.

“The record is very clear,” he said—reciting the part of the record he preferred. At this point, Russert was being openly hostile—to Clinton, who was not the front-runner.

For the record, Russert’s next question went to Clinton again, as he tried to “button up” the NAFTA matter. According to our notes at the time, we were now 27 minutes into the debate—a debate which would run 90 minutes, minus time for two commercial breaks. And omigod! Russert and his “trophy wife” had pounded at Clinton for the whole time! Finally, at 9:27, Russert posed the first question to Obama which went beyond a simple invitation to comment on Clinton’s remarks. And when he did, he lobbed a softball—the kind of softball question that would be spoofed a few days later on Saturday Night Live:

QUESTION 11, RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you did, in 2004, talk to farmers and suggest that NAFTA had been helpful. The Associated Press today ran a story about NAFTA saying that you have been “consistently ambivalent” towards the issue. A simple question: Will you as president say to Canada and Mexico, this has not worked for us, we are out?

After pounding away at Clinton’s alleged inconsistency, Russert quoted an ambiguous two-word critique of Obama (“consistently ambivalent”), then lobbed an admittedly “simple question.” The Welch Boys had now burned a full third of the evening’s usable time—and this was the first real question they had posed to the front-runner! If you want to know why Russert and Williams were mocked on Saturday Night Live that weekend, this explains it in a nutshell. And by the way: After Obama answered this “simple question,” there was one mild follow-up from Russert. (“Are you sure this has not been better for Ohio than you’re suggesting?”) And then, he turned back to the person he loathes. It was now 9:31—and his tone was openly hostile:

QUESTION 13, RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, on the issue of jobs, I watched you the other day with your economic blueprint in Wisconsin, saying, “This is my plan, hold me accountable.” And I’ve had a chance to read it very carefully. It does say that you pledge to create five million new jobs over 10 years, and I was reminded of your campaign in 2000 in Buffalo, my hometown, just three hours down Route 90, where you pledged 200,000 new jobs for upstate New York.

There’s been a net loss of 30,000 jobs. And when you were asked about your pledge, your commitment, you told the Buffalo News, “I might have been a little exuberant.” Tonight, will you say that the pledge of five million jobs might be a little exuberant?

The question was reasonably fair, if a bit tortured. But it was plainly intended to be a tough question, a bit of a gotcha—and Russert’s tone was openly hostile. By the time this Q-and-A was done, roughly forty percent of the evening’s time had been used. This is the way Jack Welch’s twin hires “ganged up on the front-runner” last week.

A bit of background is called for here. Before we go there, let’s say it again. This is not about Obama or Clinton. This is about Tim and Bri:

Obviously, Russert and Williams did not attempt to “gang up on the front-runner” last week. (Good. That’s not their job.) By contrast, they plainly did so back in October, in an utterly indefensible way. In the remainder of last week’s debate (comprising roughly 60 percent of the time), their treatment of the two Dems was more balanced. Russert challenged Obama about his semi-pledge to accept federal funding for the general election—but he then challenged Clinton about two separate matters. (Release of her income tax records. Release of material from the National Archives—with a follow-up.) He questioned Obama about Louis Farrakhan’s endorsement—questioning for which he was criticized—but he then threw an undisguised “gotcha” at Clinton. (Can you name the new Russian president?) Most comically, Williams opened the debate’s second half by challenging Obama about “a little hyperbole” he had supposedly committed. But when Williams asked Obama to watch the tape, NBC “accidentally” played tape of yet another comment by Clinton—another comment for which she’d been widely mocked. When Williams finally played the tape of Obama’s alleged hyperbole, it basically served as a chance for another softball question.

Most strikingly, the first forty percent of this debate was basically used to gang up on Clinton—at a time when pundits were widely saying that Clinton needed to find a way to change the drift of the campaign. Obviously, people like Kurtz need to re-examine their explanation for the October 30 debate; it’s perfectly clear, after last week’s debate, that Russert and Williams do not “gang up on front-runners” as a general policy. And no: Moderators have not “ganged up on the front-runner” at past debates in the way Russert and Williams did last October. Why did Russert and Williams behave as they did on October 30? The reason for that is perfectly obvious—though professional pundits would jump off a bridge before they’d ever disclose it.

One last note about Russert’s conduct—more specifically, about his loaded questions to Clinton concerning her views on NAFTA.

As we noted, when Russert stopped badgering Clinton about NAFTA, he asked Obama a rather mild question. In the process, he referred to an AP report which said that Obama had been “consistently ambivalent” about the trade deal.

That AP report is quite intriguing. In fact, it was a “Fact Check” by Calvin Woodward—a balanced review of both candidates’ views about NAFTA. It criticized each of the Dems for (occasionally) distorting the views of the other. Here’s something Woodward said at one point about Obama’s occasional distortions:

WOODWARD (2/26/08): Obama is correct that Clinton has praised NAFTA in various ways, but he leaves out the qualifications she's expressed along the way.

That’s true—and Clinton has sometimes simplified Obama’s views as well. But let’s read that quote from the AP again: Obama is correct that Clinton has praised NAFTA in various ways, but he leaves out the qualifications she's expressed along the way. In fact, that’s exactly what Russert did in his series of question to Clinton! (See questions 7-9, above.) In his questions, Russert cited several times, some in the distant past, when Clinton spoke favorably about NAFTA. But in his questions, he absent-mindedly “left out the qualifications she had expressed along the way.” But this is exactly what Woodward criticized, in the report Russert later cited! In short, Russert was playing the hack against Clinton. But then, this has long been his way.

No, Virginia: Moderators have never behaved the way these Twin Plutocrats did last fall. Last week, they had a new front-runner to “gang up on”—and you saw a fake theory dissolve.