In the Arena

A Lousy Debate…plus Latest Column

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I have slightly–well, a microscopic smidgeon–more sympathy for the gotcha-moderators from ABC than Tom Shales does. As Karen points out below, Michael Grunwald does a good job limning the banalities elsewhere on this site. But I think Stephanopoulos and Gibson were doing what journalists do: they picked the most obvious scabs. They asked trivial questions because this has become a trivial campaign–mostly because Clinton and Obama have nearly identical positions on most issues. And there is some value in seeing how Obama–the likely nominee–will handle Republican style attacks in the general election campaign, should they come. Last night he handled them fairly well, but not nearly as sharply as he could have. He stumbled about, at times. He could have been more aggressive about shaming Clinton for her 100% negative advertising in the campaign. He could have deployed the humor that he’s used so effectively in the past. His essential point–that these trivial pursuits are distractions from the huge issues at stake in this election–needed to be driven home more forcefully.

But I was as dismayed with the second half of the debate–the “substantive” part–as I was with the first. The ABC moderators clearly didn’t spend much time thinking about creative substantive gambits. They asked banal, lapidary questions, rather than trying to break new ground. They asked the same old Iraq troop withdrawal question, rather than using the skillful interrogation Clinton and Obama deployed during the Petraeus hearings last week as a way to dig deeper toward the heart of the issue. (Question to Clinton: “Last week, General Petraeus said–in response to your question–that the U.S. military was going to support Prime Minister Maliki’s government in its assault against dissident Shi’ites, do you think that’s a wise move? And if not, why do you think Petraeus is moving in that direction?”)…and Charlie Gibson really needs a lesson in capital gains taxation–yes, the revenues go up (temporarily) when the rates come down, but only because traders hold onto the stocks in anticipation of the rate reduction so that they can gain higher profits. And there is an equity question here: should wealth be taxed at a lower rate than work?

It would have been nice if either Clinton or Obama had made that last populist point. Might have gone over pretty well in small-town Pennsylvania. But both these candidates are now deeply rutted in their standard replies…and repitition makes the weakness of each response ever more clear. (All prospective policy proposals have weaknesses; it’s almost always a matter of choose your poison.)

My guess is that Obama, simply by pointing out the dopiness of the questions in the first half of the debate, probably emerged from this better than Clinton did. People get tired very quickly of these media-and-consultant driven spin stories…and Clinton is simply killing herself with a great many Democrats nationally, including many who voted for her, by pursuing this negative strategy. It’s sad to watch because, as I’ve written often in the past, she has offered the best substantive policies of any candidate running this year. She’ll win Pennsylvania, but probably not by as much as she needs to.

Finally, there are those who despair that we’re doomed to a year of gotcha moderators asking trivial questions. I share their fears, but I’m slightly more optimistic, mostly for the reasons I lay out in this week’s print column.

Update: Props to Poniewozik, who nails the debate with fewer, better word than mine own effort.