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STUPID, HE SAID! Kristol ridiculed Matthews’ work. Our analysts lustily cheered // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 9, 2007

SPINNING ABORTION: We’ve been fascinated by the way the press spins abortion since January 2000, when the national press, reading script for Bradley, tried to say that Gore was lying about his past stance on the issue. (Gore had always supported Roe v. Wade. He had opposed federal funding when he served in the House. He began supporting federal funding in the 1980s.)

Basic rundown? Your press corps often seems bollixed by the simplest parts of abortion logic. Consider this position, for instance: “I disapprove of abortion myself. But I support a woman’s right to choose.” Many Dem pols have adopted this stance, from Cuomo through Candidate Kerry. But pundits constantly find this stance deeply puzzling—when puzzlement serve their strange interests.

When they get to throw in issues of funding, we all tend to drown in their mischief.

We thought of this problem again today when we read this report in this morning’s Post. Michael Shear was having some fun with Giuliani’s debate performance:
SHEAR (5/9/07): In Thursday's debate, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Giuliani responded to a question first by saying that it would be "okay" if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Then he said it would be okay if it were upheld, before winding his way back to a defense of his long-held abortion-rights position.
Giuliani floundered substantially at the debate. His statements ought to be sorted out. But that passage by Shear is simply clownish. And it’s deeply uninformative.

That may be the best Brother Shear can do; our national press corps is deeply unimpressive. But they love to clown with this issue. Get ready to learn next to nothing about what’s involved here—except what they want you to hear.

THE DRUMBEAT GROWS: Yesterday, Kevin Drum expanded the background about Fred Thompson’s little red non-Corvette (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/07). We strongly suggest that you read his item. And when you’re done, why not review Thompson’s recent cri de coeur: Ladies and gentlemen, Mars is warming! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/07, to relive all the kooky-con fun.

It seems that Thompson’s a bit of a clown. But we’ll stand behind the bet we made: Pundits hate saying that Big Reps are clowns. Over the course of the past fifteen years, these giants have felt much more at home making up tales about Dems.

We liberals have done a very poor job explaining this problem to voters.

WE’D CALL HIM AN IRON MAN, TOO: We saw Gore give his slide show last night, through this forum at Tom Schaller’s crib. Sadly, someone interrupted early on. And what did they shout? Mars is warming!

Special report: Let’s play nut-ball!


BE SURE TO READ EACH INSTALLMENT: Let’s play nut-ball, Matthews said. Be sure to read each installment:
PART 1: To their credit, the candidates laughed at Chris Matthews’ ludicrous question. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/07.

PART 2: NBC ran both debates. So why were the sessions so different? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/8/07.
Today, we offer Part 3. And we cheer at what Bill Kristol said.

PART 3—STUPID, HE SAID: Omigod! Our analysts cheered when they watched Bill Kristol on this weekend’s Fox News Sunday. What did he think of last Thursday’s Republican debate? We don’t agree with every word. But basically, Kristol was right:
KRISTOL (5/6/07): The big picture was that Chris Matthews was a terrible moderator. MSNBC did a terrible job. And Brit Hume is going to do a much better job in two weeks—

CHRIS WALLACE: Hear, hear.

KRISTOL: —on the Fox News Channel. I want to go out on a limb and say something that's really unpopular right here at this table. I do think the media lost, incidentally, and the candidates won.

The candidates kept their dignity and gave reasonable answers, and the media questions were ridiculous and sort of rude.
We were glad to see Kristol say these things, because his comments were basically accurate. As a general matter, we wouldn’t say that Thursday’s questions were “rude” to the GOP candidates. Yes, a few of the hopefuls were treated unfairly, but this didn’t compare to the endless string of loaded questions which had been offered the week before, at the Democratic debate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/30/07). But without any doubt, last Thursday’s questions were often ridiculous. Moments later, Kristol spoke again. We agreed with these statements too—and we just loved that one word:
KRISTOL: Who asked those questions? That's what happens when you let Chris Matthews moderate a Republican debate. It's one stupid question after another.

They were strong on foreign policy. They were strong on Iraq. They wanted to talk about the war on terror and Iran and tax cuts, and they weren't really allowed to because of the moderator.
From what Kristol said, Fox viewers might have thought that Matthews showcased some sort of “liberal bias” last Thursday. As a general matter, that notion is daft. But yes! The questions that night were exceptionally “stupid.” We cheered as Big Bill used the word.

Just how stupid were last Thursday’s questions? We’ve already gone over some of the nonsense Matthews brought forward that night: Those questions helped make a joke of the evening—though they tended to favor Republicans. But Kristol is right in another way; the endless absurdity of Thursday’s questions did keep the Republican candidates from discussing the day’s major issues. In Tuesday’s editorial, the Washington Post correctly complained about the management of both recent debates. Eventually, though, the Post zeroed in on Matthews’ disordered performance:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (5/7/07): Would it be too much to ask for 90-second answers? Or for a format in which candidates could question each other? The best [idea] would be to give sustained attention to a single topic, or at most a few areas... Even if debates aren't this rigorously formatted, certainly they could benefit from more focus on a few topics, rather than Thursday's attention-deficit-disorder-style debate, which skipped from belief in evolution (three candidates didn't) to organ donation to I. Lewis Libby.
Plainly, the Post was talking about Matthews (and his co-hosts) when it made that remark about ADD. But in best, polite insider fashion, the paper failed to name their target. This reticence, of course, is one of the ways such press corps nonsense continues to flourish. Major scribes refuse to comment on the hapless work of their famous colleagues. So give Kristol some kudos for using that word! He said that Matthews’ work was “stupid”—and readers, that’s just what it was.

How dumb were Thursday’s questions? Let’s set Matthews aside for the moment and turn to his hapless assistant moderators—John Harris and Jim VandeHei, from the embarrassing Politico. Harris made a few missteps, but VandeHei was simply awful all evening. What did Kristol mean by “stupid?” Try to believe the following question, asked of Tom Tancredo:
VANDEHEI (5/3/07): Congressman Tancredo, David Kim from here in California wants to know: Beside yourself, who do you think should be the Republican nominee for president of the United States, and why?
Readers, let’s say it—that’s stupid! It’s hard to know why David Kim thought a question like that made sense, but even stranger is the fact that VandeHei chose to ask it. Surely, Politico received thousands of questions from its readers in the week before the debate. So why would VandeHei offer that groaner? (Sadly, we give you the answer tomorrow. Vandehei explained post-debate.) But then, VandeHei’s selections were often quite daft. This question was notably weird:
VANDEHEI: Governor Romney, Daniel Duchovnik from Walnut Creek, California, wants to know: What do you dislike most about America?
What a strange question in a White House debate! It implied there must be many things Romney dislikes about America; VandeHei simply wanted the one thing he dislikes the most! And VandeHei asked several questions like this next one—the kind of factual “gotcha” question designed to make hopefuls look bad:
VANDEHEI: Governor Thompson, Joanie from California wants to know how many American soldiers have lost their lives in the Iraq war, and how many have been injured, to date?
How disingenuous was that presentation? According to VandeHei, Joanie from California wanted to know how many people had died in Iraq. But instead of checking it out on the web, she figured she’d wait for the GOP forum and see if Tommy Thompson could help her! But then, VandeHei seemed to have an endless supply of weird, irrelevant, or arcane questions—questions which created the scattershot feeling the Post correctly described. Sometimes he simply lobbed silly softballs, as in these two questions:
VANDEHEI: Congressman Hunter, Maggie from Highland Park, Illinois, wants to know if you consider yourself a compassionate conservative, like President Bush.

VANDEHEI: Congressman Paul, Pete from Rochester Hills, Michigan wants to ask you this: If you were president, would you work to phase out the IRS?
“That’s what they call a softball,” VandeHei himself volunteered, when the audience laughed at his question to Paul. On the other hand, sometimes VandeHei asked policy questions so specialized and so arcane that you wondered why they were asked at all. How many voters were hoping to hear one candidate (out of ten) answer these questions, for instance:
VANDEHEI: Governor Gilmore, this question comes from Malika in Washington, D.C.: “Women are the fastest growing prison population. Most are mothers who are non-violent, first-time offenders. What will you do to address the issue of mothers behind bars and the children left behind?”

VANDEHEI: Congressman Tancredo, David Diamond from Memphis writes in, "Do you have a plan to solve the shortage of organs donated for transplant?"
Other questions were presumably well-intentioned, but they made no apparent sense at this stage of a White House campaign:
VANDEHEI: Governor Romney, Robert Deitrich from Towson, Maryland, wants to know which cabinet official would be at the top of the list of those you'd like to carry into your administration if you're elected?
Why would VandeHei assume that Romney would want to retain any cabinet members? Two years out, candidates aren’t going to answer that question, and it’s hard to know why it’s being asked—especially in a debate which almost completely ignored many of the nation’s most pressing issues. The Post was right: These questions gave this debate an ADD feel—and kept the candidates from anything resembling a sustained discussion of major policy matters. And Kristol was right when he said that the candidates seemed more serious than the moderators. For example, here’s how Hunter answered that question about whether he considers himself compassionate:
HUNTER: Answer: Yes. And let me take the rest of my time on Iran...
Hunter spent two words on VandeHei’s question, then moved to something more serious. But then, this problem dogged the Dem debate too; in each case, multimillionaire moderators seemed disinclined to create coherent discussions of issues. The Post spoke of “attention deficit disorder.” For each of the past two week’s debates, the Post’s diagnosis was correct.

How scattered was last Thursday’s debate? In all honesty, Matthews didn’t even form an intelligent series of questions about Iraq. As Williams had done the week before, he started the evening with a string of such questions. But he started with lazy softballs for McCain and Thompson (“What would you need to win in Iraq?”) and, before long, he had wandered to this—the evening’s first question for Huckabee:
MATTHEWS: Governor Huckabee, I'd like to get your views about how you balance loyalty and accountability. Would you have fired Don Rumsfeld before last November?
Matthews didn’t want to know what Huckabee thought we should do in Iraq. For unknown reasons, he wanted to know how the governor “balances loyalty and accountability.” By his next question, Matthews was deep in the weeds, asking this of Gilmore:
MATTHEWS: On this general question, the Rumsfeld removal was perhaps timed to the election. Do you think a general shake-up in this administration's Cabinet, right now, would be good for the administration?
Truly, that’s a ludicrous question when so many central questions about Iraq had gone unasked and unanswered. But Matthews has frequently said on Hardball that he thinks Bush should shake up his cabinet. Showing his endless self-involvement, he thought it made sense to ask poor Gilmore about his own pet idea. Again, Gilmore pivoted off this tangential question to discuss his own central views on Iraq.

Matthews did ask some decent questions. Twice, he asked McCain what his “trip-wire” would be concerning a possible war with Iran; when McCain didn’t answer the first time, he came back and asked him again. And Matthews surprised us with his willingness to question Giuliani about abortion, a topic where the former mayor was floundering. But once the opening section on Iraq was done, the evening spun into a long, formless muddle. With less than twenty minutes gone, the hopefuls were weirdly being asked if they’d amend the constitution to let Darling Arnold run for the White House. Matthews’ attention-span may be wanting. But he always returns to the fawning conduct he has long aimed at Big Major Reps.

The scattershot quality observed by the Post observed was this forum’s biggest problem. Beyond that, let’s consider a couple of cases where Matthews just flat-out bungled.

First, Matthews was quite unfair to Huckabee when he asked the questions below. Matthews was simply wrong in his premise, as Huckabee quickly told him. But so what? The host just kept blustering forward:
MATTHEWS, ORIGINAL QUESTION: Governor Huckabee, you've criticized Governor Romney for saying his faith wouldn't get in the way of his public life, his governing. Are you going to back that up tonight?

MATTHEWS, FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: But you answered a question that George Stephanopoulos of ABC about this governor, one of your rivals, and you answered it in this way: "I'm not as troubled by a person who has a different faith. I'm troubled by a person who tells me their faith doesn't influence their decisions." That's in direct response to George Stephanopoulos on February 11th of this year. Why are you changing that point of view now?
In the course of this discussion, Matthews openly argued with Huckabee; told him, “No, you’re changing your quote;” and said, “Well, you answered in direct response to Governor Romney and his Mormonism. Why are you pulling back now?” But when we checked Huckabee’s This Week transcript, we’d have to say that Matthews was wrong. In response to a question from Stephanopoulos, Huckabee demurred from addressing Romney’s religion, then went on to state his general view about the role of religion in politics. In our view, Matthews—or whichever minion prepared his question—misread this exchange badly. But so what? Matthews just kept blustering forward, calling Huckabee disingenuous. This was very dumb, and very unfair. But it’s typical of the who-gives-a-shit approach Matthews tends to bring to his work.

For the record, Matthews bungled a second topic, one he raised with all the hopefuls. He clearly didn’t understand a proposal Giuliani has made—a proposal that every non-citizen should be issued a “tamper-proof ID card.” Starting with Giuliani, Matthews asked all the candidates about this idea—then created massive confusion when it became clear that he didn’t realize that Giuliani’s proposal only applied to non-citizens. (Giuliani had stated this clearly.) Matthews himself brought up this proposal—and clearly, he didn’t understand it. Who knows? When we watch celebrity pundits flounder and flail with real issues in this manner, perhaps it’s better that they stick to questions about Edwards’ bouffant—and Bill Clinton’s troubling sex drives.

Indeed, the scattershot quality of this debate was matched by the MSNBC team’s factual bungling. Omigod! Even when the net did its post-debate “truth squad” feature, David Shuster hopelessly bungled the second topic (of two) he discussed. He played tape of Romney discussing abortion, then committed a cosmic gaffe—while claiming, falsely, that Romney had blundered. In the debate, Romney had said that he has “changed [his] mind” about abortion, just like Reagan and Bush 41 before him. For unknown reasons, Shuster offered this bizarre claim on behalf of his network’s “Truth Squad:”
SHUSTER: Actually, that’s not a course at all that George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan took. Both were consistent, George H.W. Bush particularly so, on the issue. He was always pro-life.
Truly, that is just amazing; we assume we don’t have to explain. Immediately, Shuster began to “truth squad” Giuliani’s statements about abortion—and frankly, he bungled there too. Our question: Who will “truth-squad” this strange network’s “truth squad?” Shuster only checked two topics—and he had a screaming mess out of this one, in a way that was very unfair.

The questions were “stupid,” Kristol said. Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts cheered. But let’s get back to the biggest problem: MSNBC’s relentless tilt against Big Major Dems has been clear for a good long while. In the first debate, Williams threw loaded questions at the Dems all evening. By contrast, Matthews, despite his distracted incompetence, couldn’t stop fawning to Big Major Reps and worrying about Bill Clinton’s sex drives. And who is going to help the public sort through these Lost Boys’ rank bias? Indeed, some reactions to these debates made our team fear for next year.

TOMORROW—PART 4: Where’s the outrage?

SO TYPICAL: The questions posed to Tancredo were ludicrous. Celebrity moderators often marginalize “lower-tier” candidates, but this practice may have reached a new level last Thursday in the case of Tancredo. Yes, the hopeful got to speak to the “enjoyable down-the-line” questions Matthews threw at all the GOP hopefuls; why, he even got to tell the world if Arnold should run for the White House. But these were the only stand-alone questions directly posed to this candidate:
MATTHEWS: Congressman Tancredo, along those lines, imagine you're president of the United States and this is a likely or possible scenario, certainly plausible. You get a call from the prime minister of Israel, the prime minister of Israel, who's now Ehud Olmert, saying Israel's about to strike Iran's nuclear sites and he wants U.S. help. What do you say?

VANDEHEI: Congressman Tancredo, David Diamond from Memphis writes in, "Do you have a plan to solve the shortage of organs donated for transplant?"

VANDEHEI: Congressman Tancredo, David Kim from here in California wants to know: Beside yourself, who do you think should be the Republican nominee for president of the United States, and why?

VANDEHEI: Congressman Tancredo, this reader requests a yes or no answer. Will you work to protect women's rights, as in fair wages and reproductive choice?
Truly, it would be hard to get much dumber than that. In 90 minutes, Tancredo was asked only four stand-alone questions; in one of the four, he was asked to endorse somebody else. He was asked about organ donations—but not about immigration, a major topic which was largely ignored. And in that last question, VandeHei wanted a one-word answer—to a question about two complex issues! Truly, VandeHei may have turned in the dumbest performance in the history of presidential debates. Even Bernie Shaw, sitting at home, rolled his eyes in amazement.

Of course, immigration is one of the major issues Matthews failed to build a discussion about. When he tried to raise a secondary immigration issue, he bungled the facts about Giuliani’s proposal, creating massive confusion. But to his credit, he did ask all ten hopefuls this: Should Arnold get to run for the White House? That was “a question regarding immigration,” Matthews announced. It wasn’t clear if he was joking.

“Stupid,” Kristol later said. Kristol was being too kind.