Desperately Seeking Soundbite

Russertism strikes again

It was supposed to be Fight Night. It was supposed to be a dukes-out, all-out, no-punches-pulled Epic Battle in which the five GOP candidates still in the ring would fight to the (political) death, the theme song from Rocky, perhaps, booming in the background. It was supposed to be “scrappy,” wrote the Huffington Post—“perhaps the scrappiest yet for the GOP nomination.” There were supposed to be, as The Swamp’s Jason George had it, “jabs and sparks.”

Instead, last night’s much-anticipated Republican Smackdown, coming on the heels of Tuesday’s much-derided Donkey Kong debate, was “the tamest GOP affair in weeks,” according to NBC News’s Domenico Montenaro. It was “so uneventful,” in fact, Josh Marshall lamented, “We decided to let our producer/editor go home early and not even do a highlight reel because there wasn’t much to highlight.” In other words, The New York Times acknowledged, it was “not exactly the kind of knock-down, drag-out fight that has characterized past Republican debates.”

Which is putting it, actually, mildly. Last night’s debate participants turned the hyped heavyweight match into little more than a slapping contest. “They chose to sort of step back, not engage with each other too much,” NBC News’s Chuck Todd announced in MSNBC’s post-debate wrap-up. “These guys took the high road on each other.” Mike Huckabee, appearing on MSNBC this morning, agreed. “We didn’t get distracted with a lot of sharp-elbow punching last night,” he said.

No, they didn’t; to the contrary, “careful not to appear overly negative,” as the Politico had it, they seemed to make a concerted effort to be courteous. Giuliani declared at one point that “Senator McCain is right” in calling for less government spending. Perhaps he was paying it forward: “When Mitt Romney asked me a question, notice he asked me a very nice question,” Giuliani said. And when McCain jumped in to defend—yes, defend—Giuliani, calling the former mayor “an American hero”…well, the debate jumped from slightly bizarre to fully Bizarro.

It was, more than anything, a sly move on the Republicans’ part to make nice and distinguish themselves from the bickering Democrats—not to mention a way to earn individual brownie points for their Good-Humored Geniality. (See Giuliani subtly-but-visibly wincing as he watched McCain score such points by defending him.) But the forced friendliness was also oddly indicative of a debate that, as previous rounds have not, blurred the bounds of political opposition: rather than Candidate versus Candidate, last night’s battle lines were drawn between Candidate and Moderator. McCain’s pseudo-chivalrous “American hero” comment was made to defend his rival not from another candidate, but from debate moderator Brian Williams. And, specifically, from Williams’s live-TV repetition of The New York Times’s characterization of Giuliani, as it endorsed McCain yesterday evening, as “a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man who saw no need to limit police power” and whose “arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking.”

“How can you defend against that in your hometown paper? How have you changed as a man since this portrait?” Williams asked the former mayor.

“Obsessively secretive”… “vindictive”… “arrogance and bad judgment”—fighting words, to be sure. And Giuliani seemed to struggle, at moments, to maintain his composure in deflecting them. Because if the candidates last night were doing their damnedest to remain “civil” and “cordial,” Tim Russert and Williams, Russert’s silky-voiced Sancho, were doing their damnedest to fulfill their network’s promises of Fight Night. To wit, here’s a sampling of some other Russert and Williams asked of the candidates:

Russert: Governor Huckabee, are you comfortable with the fact that Governor Romney raised fees a quarter of a million dollars as governor of Massachusetts? Do you trust him as a tax cutter?

Russert: Governor Romney, you’ve criticized Senator McCain for opposing the first two Bush tax cuts. You’ve criticized Mayor Giuliani for going to court to try to retain a commuter tax on people coming to the city of New York. Do you trust Senator McCain and Mayor Giuliani on the issue of being tax cutters?

Williams: Governor Romney, since we’ve been on the air tonight, one of the other campaigns has faxed us with a charge about you that you’ve heard before, that Governor Romney, quote, “changes positions with the wind.” One of your own advisers admits the perception among all of the candidates on stage is that you have changed over time your positions, that you haven’t paid your dues. The New York Times yesterday called you the most disliked of the five. Your defense in all that?

They asked questions, in other words, that attempted to bait the candidates by couching the Policy in the Personal. Questions that, as Williams put it, were “designed to speak to who you all are in terms of how you counter the attacks against you from your opponents, the weaknesses your opponents among others perceive”—and that sought not just “Aha!” moments of revelation about the candidates, but also, and more so, “Gotcha!” moments from them—moments that, however little light they shed on the whole Who Would Make the Best President question, make for good TV.

Which is nothing new. We’ve noted before, for one, Russert’s particular propensity to inject himself into the debates he moderates; it’s a trend with him, even a trademark. Matt Yglesias calls it Russertism:

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. Under this new dynamic, the role of the moderate is not to play host to an interesting informative discussion but rather to maximize the odds that some particular 10 second snippet of an hour-long broadcast will be worthy of rebroadcast. Hence, the focus on inane questions designed less to draw out an illuminating remark than to trip someone up.

But last night’s debate suggested a slightly different spin to the Russertism Yglesias describes. The mega-moderators seemed not just In Search of a Soundbite; they seemed in search, specifically, of that extra-juicy bite that can only come from…a fight. Their questions (“Do you trust so-and-so?”; “How do you defend against so-and-so’s attacks?”) were designed to force the candidates to address each other on personal levels—and to address each other, rather than the voters. Russert and Williams, as other pundits did, expected a Throwdown last night; and if the candidates weren’t throwing the punches, the moderators would throw some for them.

But that’s the other odd twist of the evening: rather than fight against each other, the candidates rebelled against the moderators. It was a game of Red (State) Rover in which the line of GOP candidates onstage at Florida Atlantic’s auditorium repeatedly summoned their will, clasped their hands, and sent Russert right over—and deflected him every time. “Williams and Russert tried unsuccessfully several times to get the candidates to engage one another,” wrote The Washington Post. “Russert observed afterward that it seemed as though the contenders had made a ‘nonaggression’ pact.”

Still, fear not, Mr. Russert: things may yet, to use the word of the moment, change. As Chuck Todd said in his post-debate analysis, the stakes of the next GOP debate will be even higher. “Maybe then,” he said, “we’ll see one of the candidates go negative.” The note of hope in his voice was unmistakable.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.