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11 January 2000

Our current howler (part II): Move along; nothing to look at

Synopsis: Tim Russert asked about Bush’s tax record. The answer? We still haven’t heard.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Governor George Bush
GOP Candidate Forum, MSNBC, 1/10/00


Question: Where in the world does a voter go if he wants a little information? We don't recommend the celebrity press corps, which is reflexively information-averse. In our last two HOWLERS, we've revisited the Great Groaning Fiscal Debate, in which the celebrity press corps refuses to describe the actual state of current budget projections (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/6/00 and 1/10/00). Hopefuls can spend the "surplus" any way that they want, because polite reporters won't report that the "surplus" is actually bogus. The press corps refuses to play an active role in shaping a rational discourse.

Nor do most voters have the slightest idea about the merits of the Bradley health plan. Ten weeks after Vice President Gore challenged the plan at the Hanover debate, it is still impossible for a vigilant voter to evaluate Gore's representations. Could a Medicaid recipient get decent health care for Bradley's $1800 "weighted average?" It's virtually impossible for a voter to say, because the press corps has simply refused to report on this seminal proposal by Bradley (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/23/99; see tomorrow's DAILY HOWLER). Meanwhile, every time the two Dem hopefuls raise the issue in debate, celebrity moderators shoo the vagrants along, making the windy White House wannabes move on to other topics (see tomorrow's DAILY HOWLER).

Indeed, if there is one quality network moderators have put on display all throughout the candidate forums, it is a studied aversion to extended debate—a distaste for developed information. To all appearances, the moderators exist to make sure no information could ever emerge from these sessions. This tendency was on display again last night, as the GOP hopefuls debated in Michigan. Voters who were curious about hopefuls' views on taxes were sorely frustrated early on in the going, as the latest edition of Short Attention Span Theater emerged on the GOP stage.

Entering the forum, there was news from the front—Candidate Forbes was airing ads attacking Bush's tax record in Texas. Indeed, the very first question of the night concerned this long-awaited event:

TIM RUSSERT: 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, proposed an increase in the business tax and the sales tax"Is that in fact an accurate statement?

Failing to answer the actual question, Bush laid out his reply:

BUSH: What is accurate is I led my state in 1997 to the largest tax increase in Texas history. The truth is that I laid out a plan that cut a billion dollars of property taxes...

Bush went on to recite the percentage of the vote that he got from different groups in his 1998 re-election, but he never stated what sorts of tax increases he had actually proposed.

Would primary voters want to know this sort of thing? Tax matters have dominated GOP debate for at least the last twenty years. The question of Bush record was important enough to be the subject of the debate's opening question; and it soon became clear that every candidate wanted to weigh in on the subject of taxes.

But a gnat-like attention span has routinely prevailed at both parties' candidate forums this year, and that would again turn out to be true at last night's GOP session. Next in turn, John McCain was asked a question about his criticism of Bush's current tax proposal—but then the discussion was pushed ahead to a bewildering array of minor topics. Incredibly, just fifteen minutes into the forum, Governor Bush was being asked to opine on the punishment given to naughty Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker—a matter which had no conceivable relation to his proposals or preparation to be president. Meanwhile, other candidates had delivered split-screen answers, forcing comments on tax matters into their answers on other subjects. A crazy-quilt pattern took over the debate, as hopefuls dealt with a bewildering array of unrelated questions and topics.

We couldn't help marveling at the moderators' aversion to extended debate of central issues. Admittedly, it isn't easy to shape a forum in which six different hopefuls receive equal time. But it's incredible that the moderators couldn't devote at least one round of questions to federal tax policy. If you wanted to see Russert's first question answered, you might as well have been visiting Mars; in a ninety-minute forum, no effort was made to get an answer to that first central question. In a rebuttal to Bush's first answer, Forbes asserted that the Texas GOP had thrown out Bush's proposed tax plan, replacing it with a plan that was better. They had saved Bush from his bad plan, he asserted several times in the evening. Is that true? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea, because—having asked the initial question—Russert didn't think the facts mattered enough to push through to some kind of an answer.

All throughout the candidate forums, our analysts have marveled at the pace of debate—at the moderators' instinct to move things along before central questions get answered. Tomorrow, we'll look at this nagging syndrome as it's appeared in some recent Dem debates. Why even bother bringing up central questions if we can't take the time to attempt to get answers? Before last evening's forum was done, Bush had been asked what to do with naughty pitchers, and he had also been asked an irrelevant question about whether state police forces should engage in racial profiling. The panel's failure to stay on point was profoundly frustrating in last evening's forum. But it reflected a tendency we've seen on display all through this year's hopeful forums.

 

Hopeless: We've been disappointed in the performances of network moderators at the candidate forums. But local journalists selected to round out the panels have been woeful in the past several weeks. Last week, Jenny Attiyeh of New Hampshire Public Television was overtly rude to Senator McCain, sarcastically accusing him of dodging a question he had quite plainly answered. ("For someone who rides the Straight Talk Express, that wasn't the most forthcoming of answers," she scolded. Her rudeness was matched by her incomprehension; McCain plainly had answered her question.) Last night, one local moderator made a crack about Ronald Reagan that surely drove GOP viewers up the wall, and the other local scribe, discussing the irrelevant Rocker matter, asked this of a puzzled Bush:

MODERATOR: A Harvard professor today came out with...this Harvard professor came out today—Paul Weyrer, I believe is the way you pronounce his name—and he said freedom of speech does not apply in the private sector. If [Rocker] had been playing for a state university and he had said that, then his right would have been protected. Do you agree with that?

There's an obvious reason why most local anchors sit around reading copy about shootings and fires. This local moderator was involved for PR reasons last night. The public deserves much better.

As the humorists might explain it: Watching the hapless local anchors bumble their way through last night's debate, we couldn't help thinking of a hoary old joke about Moses playing golf up in heaven. Moses is rounding out a celestial foursome with the three persons of the trinity. Each of his three partners, on the first hole, tee off with astounding trick-shot holes-in-one. "Are we here to play golf, or are we just gonna f*&# around," was the question of the frustrated mortal.

What is the purpose of these candidate forums? If we are going to take these forums seriously, it's time to forget about local PR and get rid of the hapless local anchors. Or are we really just f*&#ing around?