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Russert Bags "The Marlin"

The most Russert-centric debate to date?
February 27, 2008

Who won the debate? Who won the debate?

That is, of course, the key question for so many in the political press.

And the winner of last night’s Democratic debate in Cleveland? If the post-debate high-fiving and victory-lapping on MSNBC were any indication, the winner was Tim Russert. Never mind the candidates. Never mind the voters. Never mind that the foreign policy questions on offer consisted of, basically, a gotcha question/pop quiz about the next leader of Russia, a question to Obama about the ways that Clinton’s comments about Obama’s foreign policy experience were “unfair,” and a hyper-hypothetical about Iraq (as Josh Marshall parodied: “What if we partly withdrew and then the Iraqis told us to completely withdraw and then al Qaida was elected president and then they allied with North Korea, do you have a policy ready for that!?!?!?!”)

Never mind all that. Russert was pretty pleased with his own performance and took more than one opportunity to tout his “tough questions” approach. (Self-promotion being one perk of being both the guy who moderates–i.e., the one who in so many ways controls the agenda, the tone, etc.–the debates and the guy who goes on TV later to analyze how the debates went. It’s like reviewing your own book!)

Here was Russert this morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, reacting to Clinton’s contention –apparently accurate–last night that she gets most of the first questions in debates, and explaining his Debate Moderating Philosophy (In sum: if a candidate can’t answer my tough questions, s/he does not deserve to be president):

I just have the simple view of life that if you want to be president of the United States, you have to answer tough questions. Because if you can’t answer tough questions, you can’t make tough decisions. So answer the questions and they’re going to come to you first, come to you second. It really doesn’t matter…It’s about substance, it’s about what your message is to the Democratic voters in Ohio and across the country and everything else is theater.

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Speaking of “theater”–and Russert knows from theater–here was Joe Scarborough’s reply to Russert’s above soliloquy:

If you can’t answer questions in a debate when you are running for president, then you can’t be president when you have to go out after two buildings are hit and you have to go before the press then.

But, back to what Russert said about his “simple life” outlook (which sounds sort of similar to how Josh Marshall described Russert’s approach to debate questions: “militant simpletonism”). Here was Russert later this morning on NBC’s Today Show, tooting his horn again:

Matt Lauer: Let’s talk honestly about this idea Senator Clinton put forward about always getting the first question of the debate. In other words, she’s got to think quickly on her feet. Senator Obama has a chance to listen to her answer and react and kind of counter-punch. Is there truth to it?

Russert: Well, it certainly wasn’t [true] last night…. It’s never the question that’s the problem, Matt. It’s the answer. If candidates for president can’t answer the tough questions, they can’t make tough decisions. So I think it’s better to focus on the issues and really not complain about whether or not a question is coming your way.

It’s “never the question that’s the problem”? Really? Spoken like the guy who gets to ask the questions.

But Russert wasn’t nearly as excited about his own “tough” performance as was his colleague Chris Matthews. Here is Matthews discussing the fact that Clinton last night seemed the most sorry she has been to date about her Iraq war vote and, more importantly, that it was Russert who wrenched that sentiment from the candidate (way to make news!) with his pointed “capper” of a follow-up question:

Chris Matthews: You know, I’ve watched you, Tim, like an old Ernest Hemingway fisherman trying to bring in the big marlin. For months now you’ve been trying to get Senator Clinton to offer some kind of response to her decision to vote back in 2002 to authorize the war. And I wondered if you felt that you brought it in a few more inches because in your follow up [question] you said, “You’d like that vote back?” And she said, “Yes, I’d like to have that vote back.”

Tim Russert: Absolutely!

Matthews: And it sounded to me like the furthest she’s ever gone in saying I want to revote that baby.

Russert: Because it is an issue where all your opponents–Senator Edwards, Senator Biden, Senator Dodd–who voted for that war have said it was a mistake, I apologize, I’d like to have that vote back. She’s never said that. Tonight, I think she has.

Matthews: And she chose to use that as a response to your question, open-ended, is there anything you’ve done that you’d like to do over? She chose to offer up her vote on the war resolution as the response to your question… and then followed up with yes, I’d like to have that vote back. I think you finally brought your marlin to the boat! I think.

Russert: Because her first answer [was], “I wouldn’t have voted that way again.” And I wanted to make sure …

Matthews: Then you capped it, though!

Russert: Capped it, right!

Matthews: She was in the boat floundering around!

Russert: No. No. No…

Oh, c’mon Tim, modesty doesn’t become you.

So we know who won last night. And who lost? The viewers. They got a debate heavy on questions about campaign tactics and tone and attacks and strategy (complete with a shout-out to Drudge in the second question of the night) and light on questions of true consequence to voters –you know, “tough questions.”

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.