Much has been made about ABC’s failure to ask policy-related questions during the crucial Pennsylvania debate Wednesday. Moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson have come in for particularly stiff criticism from the Obama-supporting web. Regardless, ABC did the proper thing by ignoring the “real” issues.
There are no significant policy differences between Obama and Clinton. Both want to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, both are in favor of socialized health care, both are opposed to gay marriage, both want higher taxes on the rich, both oppose privatizing Social Security, etc. Not one single American watching the PA debate was going to decide his/her vote on miniscule policy distinctions. Voters interested in “real” issues have already visited the candidates’ web sites and made up their minds. Undecided voters watching the debate on ABC weren’t going to be swayed by policy minutiae, and ABC was right to recognize that.
By and large, Americans decide to vote for a candidate based on personal narrative, identity, and symbolism. Arguably, it would be better if all voters cared about, for example, how repealing the estate tax might affect federal revenues – but that’s not the world we live in. The ABC debate needed to be about roughing up Obama and Clinton, and letting the American public see how they handled the pressure.
Stephanopoulos gave an interview to left-leaning Talking Points Memo, answering his critics:
Asked to defend the fact that policy didn’t come up for the first 40 or so minutes of the debate, Stephanopoulos said:
“We decided to focus at the top on the issues that had been at the center of the debate since the last debate. Everything we brought up in that front section had not come up since the last debate. And they all focused on the same theme — which candidate would be a stronger Democratic candidate in November.”
“This is the core question for the campaigns, and a lot of Democratic voters right now. That’s why we decided to lead with it.”
One has to wonder if Obama supporters would be upset if their candidate hadn’t come off so badly. Under repeated questioning from Charles Gibson regarding the efficacy of a capital gains tax hike, Obama sputtered a few frivolous platitudes about “fairness” and “investing in our schools” rather than engage in a substantive policy discussion. It seems churlish to criticize ABC for Obama’s lack of candor during the “real” issues part of the debate.
In fairness, Obama supporters are more worked up over the questions about Rev. Wright, and about Obama’s recent comments at the now-infamous San Francisco fundraiser. Fighting for her life, Clinton pounced on the Wright issue, declaring it fair game as a campaign issue. (Paging Sen. McCain…) By comparison, Obama demurred when given the opportunity to hammer Clinton on her transparent Bosnia-sniper-fire lies. While Obama may score points for manners, that’s no excuse for whining about insulting questions from the media. Republicans have been answering poorly-founded questions from establishment journalists for decades, and no one likes it when they whine either.
Blogging at the New York Times, David Brooks notes that one piece of worthwhile policy news came out of the ABC debate – “Both [candidates] promised to not raise taxes on those making less than $200,000 or $250,000 a year. They both just emasculated their domestic programs.” Obama or Clinton can’t pay for “free” health care without raising taxes on every single gainfully employed American citizen. Hopefully, both campaigns will issue a clarification on these unwitting pledges shortly.
Obama supporters are going to have to deal with increasing media scrutiny of their candidate. He had a free ride up until the Wright story, and most of his supporters got used to the media carrying Obama’s water. Now that he’s the presumptive nominee, Obama is just another politician as far as the Washington press corps is concerned. Even if the majority of establishment journalists are sympathetic to him, Obama will have to drop the clichés and start being candid. Soaring rhetoric will only get you so far. If Obama truly represents a change from the Bush administration, he needs to be more transparent.
Case in point – Obama has been repeatedly invited for an interview on “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.” Wallace has starting running an amusing “24”-themed graphic called “Obama Watch,” which has a digital counter showing the number of days that Obama has been ducking Fox News since the start of his presidential campaign. Because Obama has never appeared on Fox News, the counter is over 750 days as of this writing. If Obama wants to demonstrate transparency, he should agree to a Fox News interview, and answer tough questions from the right. Considering Obama has no qualms about meeting with Iran and Cuba, his boycott of Fox News is particularly fatuous.
When Obama appeared on ABC’s “The View” last month, Barbara Walters called him “sexy.” Obama’s campaign didn’t complain about the lack of policy questions then; it seems like bad taste for them to cry foul on ABC now.