Last night in Philadelphia, the home of the Constitution, ABCNews hosted a debate between the two Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Just six days ahead of a crucial primary, the debate could have been a final opportunity for voters to see key differences in the candidates’ platforms and visions for the country.
Instead, moderators Charlie Gordon and George Stephanopoulos chose to spend over half of the two-hour time slot throwing out gotcha questions about gaffes and implications of guilty by association. Not a single real policy question was asked until past the one-hour mark.
The first 9 questions (over an hour of the debate) were about the following topics:
- Each choosing the other as VP candidate
- Obama’s “elitist” remarks
- Clinton telling Bill Richardson that Obama can’t beat McCain.
- Rev. Wright: why Obama didn’t distance himself sooner
- Rev. Wright: does he love American as much as Obama?
- Clinton viewed as dishonest because of Bosnia misstatements.
- Flag lapel pins
- Obama’s ‘relationship’ with terrorist William Ayres
After each commercial break, ABC showed articles from the Constitution, accompanied by a serious, deep voiceover. Each time they followed these solemn statements with an inane question about things like lapel pins, it was hard to decide whether to laugh or howl in frustration.
At long last, after these gems came a more serious discussion – of Iraq, Iran & Israel, taxes, gun control, affirmative action, gas prices, and how each would find a role for soon-to-be former President Bush to play (this one got a bit of a chuckle out of both of them).
After the debates, the Internet and talk radio were abuzz with many journalists, bloggers and talk-show hosts excoriating the moderators for shoddy journalism. At the time of this writing, abcnews.com had over 16,000 comments from viewers, most of them appalled by the debate.
Update: evidently, ABCnews.com has deleted the vast majority of the comments.
Many Obama supporters cried foul, saying that the debate was like a 3-to-1 tag team effort against their candidate. Clinton supporters were more calm, smugly noting that it was about time that somebody asked some tough questions of Obama, whom they regard as the object of media adoration.
Regardless of which candidate they supported, most of the disgruntled took aim at the topics covered by the hosts. Rehashing old gaffes or associations that have already been covered ad nauseum isn’t helpful to anyone trying to make up his or her mind about the primary.
Granted, the two candidates agree on most issues, so at some point the moderators run out of ideas for keeping the debates fresh. But they should be more concerned with advancing discourse than with pandering to ratings-hungry producers who expect bloodbaths.
As for the candidates themselves: it appeared to me that each was growing irritated with the line of questioning, though they each grabbed the opportunity to add to the mess rather than rise above.
For example, after Clinton was asked about the Bosnia sniper-fire “issue” and she agreed that her statements had not been “as accurate as they could have been”, Obama began to hint that the media should lay off, that we all make mistakes. It sounded great until he used, as an example, her infamous 1992 quote which sarcastically asked the country whether they thought she should have stayed home to bake cookies instead of having a career. He indicated that he remembered the furor over that remark and thinking that Hillary was being wronged. Of course, in his “defense” of her he’s reminded us all, once again, of the statement.
Clinton was very coy in her ad hominem attacks, getting in her digs but couching them as things the Republicans will use against him. It was all really “Oh, me? No, I wouldn’t say anything bad about Obama. But let me tell you a few things I think those nasty Republicans will use against him…..”
The candidates did shine a bit when they finally got a chance to talk about policy. It’s just too bad they weren’t given more of a chance to do it. Nothing was said about alternative energy, NAFTA / trade agreements, the Olympics in China, the FAA – and that’s just off the top of my head.
So, who won the debate? Probably the McCain campaign, though McCain himself hasn’t tended to stoop to the level of badgering Obama or Clinton for gaffes.
And who lost? Judging by the reaction of viewers and bloggers, the big loser was ABC News in general, and Charlie Gibson & George Stephanopoulis. Oh yeah, and the voters in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Carolina. They deserve better.
We all deserve better than this.
(The full transcript of the debate can be found here.
Update: for a much funnier recap of the debate, check out The Colbert Report take on it.