Wolf Blitzer said all the right things before last night’s presidential debate.
‘We’re serious professional journalists and we have serious work to do,’ he told Mediabistro’s Gail Shister. ‘I want light, not heat. I think good, smart, informed discussion is good TV.’
Given that, you’d expect that he’d start off with a question designed to, as he put it, “elicit good, smart, informed discussion.”
If you asked voters, it’d be on something like, oh, I don’t know, Iraq, health care, or the economy. But not to Wolf and his self-described “best political team in television.”
Let’s try Attacking Senator Clinton instead.
So Blitzer tossed out an anti-Clinton ember, and then proceeded to huff and puff between her, Obama, and Edwards for the first fifteen minutes, trying to stoke the flames. Finally Blitzer turned from the leading troika and asked Joe Biden what he thought of the “exchange.”
“Oh no, no, no, no,” Biden mocked. “Don’t do it, no! Don’t make me speak!”
His joke was, of course, a self-interested critique—as he groused to a CNN interviewer after the two-hour event, the process is not treating Biden kindly. (By his own count, he only got eight minutes to speak; the leading candidates each got eighteen.)
But the process is not treating voters kindly, either. So far, the debates have not tucked heartily into issues that Americans say are important to them. Candidates have not been challenged to explain substantial matters of policy. And, if last night was any example, it’s getting worse—not better—as the primaries approach and information-hungry citizens start to tune in.
Of the seven suits, Biden was most eager to criticize the charade at hand. He’s done this before, but last night, Biden earned his wings. Debate ’08 hosts, meet your on-stage critic.
“The American people don’t give a darn about any of this stuff that’s going on up here,” he complained after the opening back and forth, before calling for a discussion of crime, of Iraq, of the subprime meltdown.
The plea went mostly unheeded. There were no questions on crime, none on mortgages or even on the economy. Iraq was more a cudgel to beat Clinton than a matter to debate.
The debate was moderated to fail, with questions designed not to promote discussion, but to provoke quotable, YouTube-able, responses.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the “real voter” Q&A segment, run by Wolf’s colleague, Suzanne Malveaux. (The average-Joe artifice cracked once Obama recognized one questioner as a casino union operative; it’s Vegas, baby!)
“This is your opportunity to ask the candidates what you really care about,” Malveaux said by way of introduction. (She forgot to finish the thought: because we sure as hell won’t.)
One mother of a marine said her son made only $30,000 a year, while a private contractor in Iraq could make $100,000. “Is there any way to end this disparity in wages?” she asked.
Good question. But it didn’t promise any on-stage, intramural contact, so not good enough for Malveaux.
Here’s her redirect:
Governor Richardson, you know that Senator Obama has said he would pull out all of the private contractors if, in fact, that he was president. But in light of how stretched our military is, do you think that’s a practical solution?
The governor’s response, like Malveaux’s question, ignored contractor wages.
Next up was Khalid Khan.
I am an American citizen and have been profiled all the time at the airport… What are you going to do to protect Americans from this kind of harassment?
Interesting. But where’s the gotcha that CNN’s gotta get?
Malveaux aimed for Senator Edwards:
You obviously voted for the Patriot Act, which gives the government extended powers of surveillance. What do you say to people like Mr. Khan who say he’s been abused by that power?
By the time things rolled around to Biden, he wasn’t having it. A questioner complained that she hadn’t heard enough about Supreme Court nominees, so she asked, “What qualities must the appointee possess?”
“In answering that question,” Malveaux interjected, desperate to tee up some controversy, “also tell us whether or not you would require your nominees to support abortion rights.”
Suzanne’s decided. I’m not answering her question. I’m answering the question of the woman who was there, okay? and then I’ll answer Suzanne’s question.
After the debate, Biden was pulled out of the spin-room scrum by CNN’s Melissa Long:
You had some really good one-liners tonight, it was very entertaining. Do you feel like you got the opportunity though to really delve into the issues?
“No,” said Biden. “I understand you guys have to make it about Hillary and Barack and the fighting.”
Long’s face contorted, and her body cocked back in shock. A moment later, she offered an olive branch.
I know you said you were counting the minutes of the debate that you actually had let me just give you an extra couple of minutes right now.
Forty-five seconds later, the interview was over.Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.