Cable news networks — hell, journalists in general — love it when a politician sticks his foot in his mouth. Luckily for the chattering classes, there are more than enough verbal gems coming from the blow-dried overachievers up on Capitol Hill to keep every televised talking head babbling over the “consequences” of what they said for hours on end.
But more often than not, cable news orgs take it too far. Last night provided a perfect example, as CNN went wall-to-wall with Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel’s non-starter suggestion that the U.S. reinstate the draft.
Paula Zahn went gaga over the idea, despite the fact that the New York congressman has suggested this in the past — in January 2003 to be exact — and the chances of a draft becoming law any time soon are essentially nil. In a bit of political gamesmanship, the bill actually came up for a vote on the House floor in October 2004, and was defeated 402-2, with even Rangel voting against it.
Rangel’s point in bringing up the issue again is the same as it was in 2003 — he claims that the military is predominately made up of poor kids with few other options, and cites the need for a national discussion about a nationalized service program. As he said over the weekend, “Having our young people commit themselves to a couple years in service of this great republic, whether it’s our seaports, our airports, in schools, in hospitals — and, at the end of that, to provide some educational benefits — it’s the best thing for our young people and the best thing for our country.” He’s got a point, and the issue of service is a worthy and important discussion to have. To that end, Rangel knows that the draft issue is one way to get journalists’ tongues wagging.
But still, Zahn seemed to miss the point of Rangel’s proposal — purposefully, I would guess, in the interest in trying to stir up some Democratic infighting — while trying to frame it simply as a matter of force levels and the Democratic Party’s lack of a backbone.
She began by asking Rangel if he was “disappointed” that the “newly elected Democratic leadership won’t touch your draft issue?” Rangel tried to defuse the issue, replying, “I don’t blame them. Talking about the draft is a very dangerous thing politically.”
Zahn smelled blood: “What’s so dangerous? What’s the risk?”
Rangel then gave the weakest of all the various arguments for instituting a national service program: “The risk is that you’re talking about putting kids, American kids, in harm’s way that come from affluent voting families. And they don’t like that idea.” But Zahn wasn’t done forcing the issue into her frame of an intra-party battle, in which Democrats display their storied squeamishness and propensity for bashing each others’ skulls in: “When you say you don’t blame the Democratic leadership,” she said, moving in for the kill, “don’t you wish they had more backbone on this one?”
Rangel punted on the party-bashing, saying, “I don’t care what the leadership does.” Zahn persisted: “But isn’t it disingenuous for you to say that you don’t care what the House leadership does, when, in fact, you need them if there’s ever going to be a vote on this issue?”
Apparently Zahn didn’t know, or didn’t care to share with her audience, that the House voted on a draft bill in 2004, and as noted above, Rangel voted against it. “Forget the vote,” he replied. “Before you get to the vote, we have to have the debate; we have to have the hearings; we have to have full discussion. And that’s good enough for me. It could very well be, at the end of the day, the wars are over, they don’t need all of these people, and so we don’t need a draft.”