Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Going into tonight's debate, it seemed unlikely that ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos could top Brian Williams and Tim Russert for sheer godawfulness in debate moderation. In several debates in the past few months, they've set the bar pretty high.

But tonight, at least for the first hour, Gibson and Stephanopoulos cleared the bar.

After a January debate, Steve Benen chided Williams and Russert:

The first question of any substance came 40 minutes into the event. 40. The entire debate was two hours long, which means Tim Russert, Brian Williams, and NBC's Natalie Morales (who was relegated to reading emails to the candidates) spent the first third of the debate covering nothing but process, politics, and horserace.

First third? Tonight it was closer to the first half. The debate began at 8:00 P.M. Eastern and was scheduled for ninety minutes (it ran long), but the first question of any substance didn't come until 8:53 -- nearly an hour in.

And were you appalled in February when Russert repeatedly asked Obama about Louis Farrakhan? Well, tonight Obama had to answer questions about Farrakhan and William Ayers, two people no one claims have real ties to Obama. Take that, Russert!

The debate was lousy with right-wing talking points. Jeremiah Wright. Tuzla. Supposed lack of respect for the flag. (One reason Gibson said it was legitimate to ask Obama about this -- the question came from an ordinary citizen, on videotape -- was that "it is all over the Internet.") Past pledges to ban handguns. Alleged ignorance of right-wing "laws" of economics. ("But history shows that when you drop the capital gains tax, the revenues go up," Gibson said flatly at one point.) Most GOP attacks right now are aimed at Obama; most of these attacks were ... aimed at Obama. The Tuzla quetioning was brief; the "bitter" questioning and Wright questioning were endless.

People say, "Can Obama really withstand the attacks he'll face from the GOP in the general election?" But that's not the right question. The right question is: Can Obama withstand the attacks he'll face from the mainstream press parroting the GOP? That should be his biggest concern. He struggled tonight, as if he didn't realize he was facing any Democratic presidential candidate's real enemy. He needs to learn where the true threat lies. He needs to learn that, in a presidential election year, the press always wants Republican Daddy.

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