WITHOUT PRECEDENT! This always happens, the pundits have said. As always, their statement is false: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2007
A WEEK THAT WAS: If youre interested in how the press works, this has been a remarkable Week That Was—a week when the last fifteen years hit the fan. Bear with us as we try to cover as much of this as we can today. Well continue with these issues on Monday. On Monday, well look at the softball questions that were asked at MSNBCs last Republican debate. Today, well focus on the questions asked at this Tuesdays debate.
KRUGMAN SPEAKS: Back in the fall of 2000, Paul Krugman was forbidden—by editor Howell Raines—from using that naughty L-word when talking about Candidate Bush. (At the time, Bush was lying his keister off about his tax cut proposal.) Result? Bush told the same lies in the first Bush-Gore debate, right there in his opening statement. And wouldnt you know it? That protected candidate ended up in the White House—and the U.S. Army ended up in Iraq.
Yep! As every good mainstream journalist knew, Al Gore was the liar in Campaign 2000. But at the Times, such charges couldnt be lodged against Bush. So Bush ended up where he is.
Today, Krugman isnt so restrained by his bosses—and so he speaks pungently in todays column. Rudy Giuliani has long been a giant dissembler. With Raines consigned to the dust heap of history, Krugman brings out the L-word today—and he wonders why Giulianis dishonesty isnt being treated as a serious character issue:
KRUGMAN (11/2/07): [H]ere's what I don't understand: Why isn't Mr. Giuliani's behavior here considered not just a case of bad policy analysis but a character issue?In Krugmans treatment, Giuliani is simply lying in some of his health care claims; in other cases, hes making false claims based on bogus statistics. And yet, Giulianis lies and false claims arent being treated as a scandal, Krugman says. Thats what I dont understand, he says at the start of this passage.
In fact, Krugman most likely does understand; most likely, hes choosing to speak rhetorically. Why isnt Giulianis constant dissembling even treated as an issue, let alone as a political scandal? In fact, the permissive treatment of Saint Giuliani is in line with the treatment once handed to Bush. But then, the rules of modern press coverage have been rather clear: Over the course of the past fifteen years, the Democrat has always had the character problems, problems which typically involve his or her truthfulness—and the Republican candidate always has not. This punishing framework has been promoted no matter what facts may be found on the ground. In Campaign 2000, Bushs real lies were hidden away; bogus lies were invented, then put in Gores mouth. And this week, weve seen the same dynamic—aimed this time at Candidate Clinton.
But then, its ever thus in our modern presspolitics! In Campaign 2000, the Dem nominee was a liar. In 2004, the Dem nominee was a flipper. Now, the Dem front-runner is being defined as evasive. And wouldnt you know it? As with Candidate Bush in 2000, Giulianis endless, blatant dissembling is barely a blip on the screen.
Might we state the obvious again? This journalistic framework will persist as long as liberals and Dems permit it. And sadly, over the past fifteen years, weve been very happy to do so. Weve done so again and again.
Indeed, are we fighting back even today? Before we look at some a new press critique, lets consider the way Jonathan Chait analyzes this long-running drama. In Chapter 6 of his new book, The Big Con, he describes the way this character drama played out in each of four White House campaigns—1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. Weird! In each election, it was the Republican candidate who had the good character, Chait observes. Then, he offers this analysis.
CHAIT (page 162): This pattern suggests two possible interpretations. The first is that, for four straight presidential elections, Republicans have put forward principled, decent and upstanding men while the Democrats have nominated a succession of cads. But unless theres something inherently immoral about Democrats and inherently virtuous about Republicans—a notion belied by Mark Foley, Duke Cunningham, and countless others—sheer statistical chance suggests this is unlikely.Note: That succession of cads would now include the current Nobel Peace Prize winner! And of course, we can now make it five straight campaigns. It turns out that the Democratic front-runner, just like her predecessors, has a vile problem with the truth.
In his book, Chait does a good job defining this problem. (Though well suggest that mere statistical chance isnt as strong here as he suggests.) But uh-oh! In Chapters 5 and 6 of an eight-chapter book, Chait does what so many career liberal writes have done in the past fifteen years—he goes to near-heroic lengths to downplay the mainstream press corps role in creating this pattern. (Yes, we still plan to spend a week taking you through this ludicrous part of an otherwise excellent book.)
But then, our career liberal writers have gone to great lengths to ignore the problem were discussing today—even as Krugman (a hero) steps back from stating or suggesting what is merely obvious. For example, the most ludicrous trashing in these elections was the brutal trashing handed to Gore—and career liberal writers have struggled and squirmed to avoid discussing it. Life is better for career liberal writers if they avoid the truth of these matters; spots on Hardball remain within reach, and good career paths remain within sight. You see, within that insider Village, the press corps misconduct just didnt happen. Sadly, career liberal writers have played the key role in keeping it all disappeared.
With that in mind, we ask you a question: Do liberals and Democrats understand, even now, that Tim Russert and the rest of the NBC gang have played a key role in this process? (We speak now of the most famous Lost Boys—Russert, Williams and Matthews.) As you may recall, this team was assembled by Jack Welch, a near-billionaire conservative Republican who was also numbered among the nations largest defense contractors. Over the course of the past dozen years, they have become exceptionally rich—and they have trashed both Clintons and Gore in ways that are truly extraordinary. Each of the three embarrassed himself in Campaign 2000, for example. And yet, the career liberal world has basically refused to discuss this, right up this present day.
Any chance that the career liberal world covets those prime spots on Hardball?
Below, were going to continue to discuss Tuesday nights Democratic debate. In particular, were going to look at the questions posed by those multimillionaire Reagan Democrats, Russert and Williams. But with regard to Brother Russert, a question has finally arisen this week. Do liberals see a partisan animus in his long-term conduct? Do we liberals see it—or not? This question arises because of this piece by Paul Waldman, at the American Prospect.
Waldman often does good work. (On another day, wed say he does great work. But today cant be that day.) But his current piece, about Tim Russert, defines our current problem.
Lets start with the perpetual analytical problem; most of what Waldman says here is accurate. And a number of liberals have rushed to say that this is a brilliant piece. But read through Waldmans profile of Russert, and you will note a curious omission: Not a single word in the piece contemplates any partisan aspect to Russerts ongoing performance. To Waldman, Russert is a big, phony dope—a big, stupid guy who asks dumb questions. But ask the same questions of everyone? In Waldmans profile, there isnt any sign that Russerts conduct might betray a partisan animus.
Early on, for example, Waldman describes Russerts dopy question about Bible verses at last months Democratic debate. This follows:
WALDMAN (10/31/07): When Obama finished his answer, Russert said to the other candidates, "I want to give everyone a chance in this. You just take 10 seconds." Predictable banality ensued. A foreign visitor unfamiliar with our presidential campaigns might have scratched her head and said, "This is how you decide who will lead your country?"Banality is surely a problem with Russert, as with Welchs Lost Boys as a group. But is Russert even-handed as he dishes his treatments? There isnt a word in Waldmans piece to suggest that he may not be. According to Waldman, Russert asks the type of debate question which seeks to make candidates look bad rather than finding out something important about them. But over the years, has this conduct been even-handed? Waldmans failure as a liberal is obvious here. It isnt just that he doesnt say that Russert tilts the field against Dems. In this piece, he doesnt even consider this as a possibility.
This omission is quite striking in light of this weeks events. On Tuesday night, Russert and Williams staged a public auto-da-fe the likes of which weve never seen. But then, no one else has seen such a thing either; simply put, there has never been a presidential debate like the one the two high peacocks staged. And lets get real here: For anyone who has followed their work, it is impossible to imagine the pair doing such things to a leading Republican. And yet, many career players on the liberal web still cant bring themselves to advance the thought that the two big guns who were hired by Welch may have some sort of partisan animus. The thought doesnt enter Waldmans head—and heres Matt Yglesias complete review of Waldmans profile:
YGLESIAS: Paul Waldmans brilliant piece on the evils of Tim Russert as debate moderator (and, of course, as Meet the Press host) unfortunately only scratches the surface of our problem, which is not so much Russert as it is Russertism. This, in turn, is built into the deeper structure of these things. The trouble is that someone discovered one day that Meet the Press or a primary debate could be very important even if almost nobody watched. The reason is that a clip might get picked up by shows that people do watch.For starters, we think you know the first rule of this game: Ill tell the rubes that youre brilliant this week; you can say the same about me sometime later. But even after the past fifteen years, it doesnt seem to cross Matts mind that part of the problem with Russertism may be its partisan cast. In the minds of these fiery liberals, Russert's inane questions are apparently equally doled. Russert tries to trip up Dems. But to judge from their work, he apparently tries to trip up Republicans too.
In Matts piece, Russert tries to trip someone up. We arent told who it is.
Chronology makes Matts post remarkable. It follows, by only two days, one of the most remarkable presidential debates in our history. No candidate has ever been savaged by moderators as Clinton was savaged on Tuesday (details below); nothing even remotely resembling that debate has ever been staged. But as they think about the guy who staged it, Waldman and Yglesias dont even raise the question of partisan animus. If youre a liberal, and you read their work, you arent told this might be a question.
In our view, Russert, Matthews and Williams have long been a partisan wrecking crew. Their debates have been astounding all year long; we have gone to substantial length to examine the way they have shaped them. Beyond that, Russerts problems were quite apparent in Campaign 2000—the Event That Must Never Be Discussed—and Matthews was simply astounding. For ourselves, we cant begin to understand what keeps liberal writers from noticing this. But its astounding to see the way they have to be pushed, dragged and hauled toward the task of observing whats real.
Time passes slowly up here in the mountains! Eight years after the trashing of Gore, some of us have managed to say that what happened may not have been kosher. (Apparent rule: Once you win the Nobel Peace Prize, career liberal writers will start to defend you!) But even now, these writers cant see the partisan problems displayed by Jack Welchs sick network. Lets say it again: This group was hand-picked by a powerful conservative Republican, then turned loose to savage the Clintons and Gore. But so what? Even after Tuesdays astonishment, the liberal world still cant digest it.
In fairness, its clear that Waldman and Yglesias arent trying to kiss up to Russert. And yet, they dont even raise the possibility of a partisan cast to his work. In the early 1960s, conservatives began thinking—well guess with cause—that they were getting a raw deal from the press corps. To their credit, they stood up and fought. Our side, its clear, never will.
POSTSCRIPT: Goofus wrote that sh*t about Waldman. Gallant still thinks hes just great.
Special report: Welchs at war!
PART TWO—WITHOUT PRECEDENT: Last night, good soldiers were squealing on MSNBC, defending magnificent Russert. For once in their lives, theyd been forced to defend themselves against flak from the left—and the lads didnt seem happy. Chris Matthews made the most ridiculous statements—but Dan Abrams and Tucker were pushing him hard. And wouldnt you know it? Even a well-known progressive guest insisting on adopting their outlook! Heres NOWs Kim Gandy, on last nights Tucker, discussing Tuesdays Democratic debate:
GANDY (11/1/07): It definitely was a pile-on. But of course, the front-runner always gets piled onto. Its a little easier for them to do it because she`s female. She is—you know, they use a somewhat different approach for her because shes female. But the bottom line is that shes the front-runner and anybody who is smart and whos trying to become the front-runner themselves is going to pile on.Could the liberal world have less of a clue? In that formulation, Gandy says that what happened was fairly typical—and she says it was done by the other candidates. This formulation disappears Russert and Williams, whose conduct was simply off the charts—was unlike anything that has ever occurred at any presidential debate. We understand that the Clinton campaign itself doesnt want to focus on Russert and Williams. But it was typical—and sad—to see this (outstanding) progressive disappear what had occurred.
Gandys comment at least served one purpose; she neatly summarized NBCs line of defense. This always happens to the front-runner, theyve said. Luckily, we have a way to see if that claim is accurate.
You see, at roughly this time eight years ago, Tim Russert hosted a GOP debate, up in Michigan. A half-dozen candidates stood on the stage, and there was a clear front-runner—George Bush. Beyond that, a clear question had arisen about this front-runner: Was he experienced and smart enough to lead the western world? In other words, the situation facing Russert was very similar to the one Tuesday night. Our question: Did that front-runner—the one named Bush—get treated like the one named Clinton? Thanks to this new-fangled thing we call transcripts, we can go back and find out.
First, though, lets take a look at the remarkable structure of Tuesday nights debate. (For full debate transcript, click here.)
At MSNBC, theyre happy to accept the idea that the other candidates ganged up on Clinton. But of course, it all started with the two hosts. Has there ever been a debate where one candidates character was hammered this way? In the evenings opening question, the pattern was clearly established. Obama was invited by Williams to bang away. Please kill the pig, Williams said:
QUESTION 1, 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?Obama had made a strong charge—and he was asked to repeat it. His answer was exceptionally vague, as well see below. But nothing he said about Clinton was challenged, and we moved on to Question 2:
QUESTION 2, RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, you issued a press release, your campaign, and the headline is Edwards to Clinton: American people deserve the truth, not more double-talk on Iran.What double-talk are you suggesting that Senator Clinton has been engaging in on Iran?In his answer, Edwards made a baldly false statement about Clinton (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/107). But so what? Russert seemed happy to move right along. Having invited Obama and Edwards to bash Clinton, he now quoted a third, absent party who seemed to be doing the same:
QUESTION 3, RUSSERT: I want to stay on Iran, Senator Clinton. As you know, you voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, the only member on the stage here who did that. Senator,Jim Webb of Virginia said it is for all practical purposes mandating the military option, that it is a clearly worded sense of Congress that could be interpreted as a declaration of war. Why did you vote for that amendment which would—calls upon the president to structure our military forces in Iraq with regard to the capability of Iran?Basically, a fair question. Of course, Dick Durbin of Illinois said the opposite thing. Somehow, he didnt get mentioned.
At any rate, the evenings shape had come into focus. Candidates would be asked to batter Clinton; if they fudged or made factual misstatements, that would be A-OK. The moderators conduct would grow more problematic as the evening proceeded, of course. But readers, lets stop here, and see what happened back in January 2000, when Russert moderated a Republican debate with a front-runner named George Bush.
Were told that the piling-on always occurs. Any chance that could be accurate?
January 2000: It took place in Grand Rapids on January 10. Bush, McCain, Forbes, Bauer, Hatch, Keyes stood on the stage. As now, there was a clear front-runner—and at the start, he was the focus. But did that front-runner get piled on that night? Right in the evenings first three questions, you can see a quite different approach.
Russert kicked things off like this. Can you spot the first difference?
QUESTION 1, RUSSERT (1/10/00): The first question is for Governor Bush. Governor Bush, Steve Forbes has an ad running on television right now which says the following: "There's something you need to know about George W. Bush: In 1994, he signed a pledge with my organization that he would not support sales tax or business tax increases. In 1997, he broke his pledge—he proposed an increase in the business tax and sales tax"—and they provide the documentation with your signature. Is that in fact an accurate statement?This time, the first question went to Bush; he was allowed to frame the discussion. In Question 2, Forbes was invited to speak about his charge—but note the different framework:
QUESTION 2, RUSSERT: I'd like to give Mr. Forbes the same question. You put the ad on the air. Is it accurate? Why is it accurate? And should you have also mentioned that Governor Bush decreased taxes as well as proposing this business and sales tax, if that's the case?On Tuesday, Edwards misstatement about Clinton passed without challenge. But back then, Forbes was challenged about his fairness before he even spoke! And when Russerts co-host, Suzanne Geha, took her turn, an even more striking thing happened:
QUESTION 3, GEHA: Senator McCain, you have attacked Governor Bush's tax plan. You have said that 60 percent of his tax cut will go to the very wealthy among us. On Meet the Press yesterday—I happened to be watching; I know Tim Russert is going to pay me at the end of the program for plugging that (laughter)—but your chief supporter, Representative Lindsey Graham, agreed that you are playing a class warfare game, that you are pitting rich against poor, something the Republican Party does not like to do. Do you acknowledge that is what you are doing? Are you going to rethink your strategy or are you going to continue this line of attack?Good God! Before McCain got his go against Bush, Geha said his chief supporter thought he was just a big *sshole! As such, you may note a slightly amended approach—back when the front-runners name was George Bush. And by the way, this was as tough as it would get for front-runner Bush this whole evening.
Yep! Gehas question to Ol Class Warfare ended the evenings focus on Bush. The next question concerned Internet filtering, and no one was ever asked to sound off on Bush again. (Nor did Russert ever ask Bush any other challenging questions.) Indeed, the rules were even framed at one point to make it impossible for attacks to occur. In one large chunk of this debate, the candidates asked each other questions. But the rules said that each hopeful could get only one question—so Bush avoided getting piled on. Most likely, the other candidates wanted to pile onto Bush. But the rules this night told them they couldnt!
This Tuesday, things were different. Questions 1-5 were largely aimed at Clinton; there followed a series of questions (6-17) in which Russert and Williams basically begged the candidates to declare immediate war on Iran. But then, it was back to the trashing of Clinton. After Russerts embarrassing series of questions (candidates were asked to pledge that they wouldnt let Iran get nukes), Russert hurried back to Clinton. He asked a rather slippery question, as we discussed yesterday:
QUESTION 18, RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, elsewhere in the region, lets talk about Iraq. One of your military advisers, retired Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, while campaigning for you in New Hampshire, was recently quoted saying, quote, I dont oppose the war. I have never heard Senator Clinton say I oppose the war. Senator Clinton, do you oppose the war in Iraq?And then, the evenings highest comedy. Once again, try to believe it:
QUESTION 19, WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, was Senator Clintons answer to the opposition of the Iraq war question consistent, in your view?At this point, the shame of the evening was becoming apparent. The two Weak Sisters of Democratic politics took their round of free pot-shots at the person Williams was hoping theyd trash. But then, Question 21 was aimed at Clinton too! Now, we were simply reading insults voiced by Saint Giuliani:
QUESTION 21, WILLIAMS: And were going to start with another subject at the top of this segment. Senator Clinton, it will go to you. It speaks to electability.Somehow, Mr. Handsome thought Rudys insults about Clintons experience spoke to electability. (Brian tends to be like that.) At any rate, in Questions 22 and 23, Russert challenged Clinton again, about the availability of records from the National Archives. And then, good God! They did it again! It was straight back to the Two Potted Plants for their critical reviews:
QUESTION 24, RUSSERT: Senator Obama, your hand's up?In short order, Dodd was asked to trash Clintons electability too. Concerning Williams question to Dodd, Lets play softball:
QUESTION 28, WILLIAMS: Senator Dodd, you gave an interview to our local NBC station here today, alluding to problems with Senator Clintons national electability. What is the point you want to make on that score?Soon, Bidens help was enlisted:
QUESTION 31, WILLIAMS: Senator Biden, you said recently, While Mrs. Clinton was meeting socially with the prime minister of a country, I was sitting down and negotiating with them. I know my experience is considerably deeper and more relevant. Do you stand by that quote, and is your inference that she is less qualified than you to be president?Then, of course, it was time for Russert play fast and loose with Clintons credibility. We also discussed this one yesterday. Russert was playing it slick—coming rather close to a lie in his concern about Clintons credibility:
QUESTION 32, RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I want to clear something up which goes to the issue of credibility. You were asked at the AARP debate whether or not you would consider taxing, lifting the cap from $97,500, taxing that, raising more money for Social Security. You said, quote, Its a no. I asked you the same question in New Hampshire, and you said no.Russerts logic was very weak. But his question stung.
Questions 33 and 34 were follow-ups about this troubling problem. (In Question 34, Russert played his patented gotcha card with an old quote from President Clinton.) Then, the impossible! He asked Obama to explain a change of his position—a question Obama simply ignored. Instead, he went back to trashing Clintons character, provoking Russerts follow-up:
QUESTION 36, RUSSERT: But when asked by The New York Times whether Senator Clinton has been truthful, you said no.In short, this was an embarrassing, ludicrous gang-bang, the likes of which has never been staged. In our view, Edwards and Obama massively lowered themselves by taking part in such absolute nonsense. (Richardson disavowed what was happening as he answered Question 27. For that reason, hes now being repetitively trashed by both Matthews and Carlson.) But Russert and Williams identified themselves as the hit-men they have long been.
Last night, squealing squirrels were all over MSNBC, insisting that this is what always happens. Gandy was unwise enough to suggest the same thing. But nothing that dimly resembles this has ever happened in such a debate—as a look at that Grand Rapids session makes clear. Was front-runner Bush piled on that night? He wasnt, and there was no chance that he would be. Simply put, Tuesday night stands alone in the annals of presidential debates. This weekend, people will tell you that it was the norm. As always, these people are lying.
THAT STATEMENT BY OBAMA: In Question 1, Obama was asked if he wouldnt please trash-talk Clinton. Heres what he got around to saying about the global challenges we face:
OBAMA: It does not mean, I think, changing positions whenever its politically convenient. And Senator Clinton, in her campaign, I think has been for NAFTA previously. Now shes against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago, and then most recently has taken a different position. She voted for a war, to authorize sending troops into Iraq, and then later said this was a war for diplomacy.He thinks she was for NAFTA, now isnt? And by the way: When a person is accused of flipping on torture, is there any chance he might be asked to be a bit more specific?
Not on Tuesday night, there wasnt! Edwards bald misstatement was A-OK; so was Obamas complaint about torture. Nothing remotely like this has been staged before. If you doubt that, go ahead: Check that Grand Rapids debate.
MONDAY: Huh! Matthews hosted the GOP debate. What kinds of questions were asked?