Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Miss Landers" conducts a First Grade Class/Republican Debate

The biggest loser in today's debate by far was PBS, whose tightly wound Des Moines Register schoolmarm moderator Carole Washburn did not allow any lengthy answers, nor meaningful exchanges between the candidates; she only wanted 30 second sound bytes, and it was an abject lesson in how NOT to conduct a debate about something as serious as choosing our next President. I cannot say enough bad things about this moderator; I'm not sure this wasn't worse than the ridiculous CNN DNC Talking Points ambush or the Chris Matthews/Keith Olberman circus. Today Washburn made it clear that it was her way or the highway, and almost no one I have seen discussing this thought she had any place on that stage.

Did PBS--arguably "ideological soulmates" of the Democrat party--purposefully "dumb down" this debate format, so as to insulate its "dream candidate" from any serious damage? Certainly this cannot be proven--but after CNN was caught rigging its debate, it is hard not to wonder about what is going on behind the scenes over there in Bill Moyers' parallel universe...

Anyway, it was a real shame that our media has once again let us down, because this was really an important day for most people on that stage--and for undecided Republican voters to really try and get their arms around a candidate. A matter as serious as a Presidential debate really ought to give the candiates an opportunity to truly distinguish themselves from their competition. This debate failed miserably at that task--and it just may have been intentional.

Still the consensus seems to be that Romney by far had the best performance today--at a time when his camp really needed a surge. I agreed with the Luntz focus group that Romney looked more Presidential than anyone on the stage, with the exception of Fred Thompson: I was pleased and encouraged that Fred was really on his game today--he not only stood up to the antagonistic, rigid, horrible moderator, he was very sharp in answering the questions he did respond to with authority--and with policy that made sense. But Fred also showed leadership in refusing to just lie down for Miss Landers' "show of hands" mentality that tells you absolutely nothing about what these candidates really think.

Meanwhile the consensus seems to also agree that Huckabee did not have his best day. But Huck was also protected by the inane format from doing anthing to hurt himself critically either. Rudy was even keeled--I don't think he significantly hurt nor helped himself. Ron Paul (who is nuts) and Duncan Hunter (who I really like) were pretty much non-factors. And what in the hell was Alan Keyes doing up on that stage?

Overall I think the debate--if anyone in Iowa was even paying attention at 1:00 in the afternoon (another ploy to lessen the impact?)--could end up tightening things significantly in Iowa, if it has any impact at all.

But as I said, to me the overall impression is that this debate format was designed by the moderator (and/or the lefties over at PBS..) to not have a serious impact. What a waste of a golden opportunity. And what a disservice to voters.

Some other takes:

Saying I hated this debate is like saying George Soros can spare some change.

The retired brigadier general who was on Hillary’s gay and lesbian steering committee was bad. This one was… egregious.

Appalling. Extraordinarily frustrating. Alternately an uncontrolled circus and a banal snore-fest. Some of the questions were extraordinarily stupid – “is it more important to have a nominee that is socially conservative or fiscally conservative? What New Year’s resolution would you recommend for one of your rivals?” And what was with the video snippets of each candidate? What, each guy is going to get too much time with nine guys on stage?

This was a disastrous format, with insane time limits on candidates, all mismanaged by a brusque, snippy moderator who seemed to think Iowans did not want the candidates to finish their sentences. She seemed to want to ignore Alan Keyes, and when he was skipped over, he piped up and complained, and she allowed him to go on at length after that. It would have been better to not invite him.

Because the Des Moines Register included Keyes, and is not including Kucinich (on a technicality) nor Gravel on the Democratic side, I have to conclude that this was a bad faith effort to make the Republican candidates look bad.

Winner: Thompson. Don’t know if it will be enough, but he ought to get at least a little bump out of this. The moment he basically told the moderator where she could stick her “show of hands” question – well, I was inspired.

Helped himself: Romney. I concur with the generally positive assessments in the Corner. The issues – education, the budget – played to his strengths. I’m stunned – unless I missed it, no mention of the National Review endorsement. Well, if he’s not going to help advertise the magazine, then the editors ought to rescind it. (I’m kidding.)

Treaded Water, No Gain, No Loss: Huckabee. The time limits got in the way of his usual rhetorical smoothness, and I'm about one pun away from .* But he's a good debater, and rarely if ever turns in a bad performance. But maybe I kept waiting for him to point to Romney and shout, "Hey, look, it's one of those MORMONS!"

Kinda Got Lost Up There: Giuliani, as well as McCain: McCain didn’t look tired of the campaign, but he seemed tired of this style of debate early. He did seem above the fray, as I predicted, but because the debate organizers decided no questions on Iraq (what the hell?!?) he rarely got to shine on his signature issue.

And just because the media isn't as interested in hearing about Iraq now that the casualties are down, doesn't mean the issue doesn't matter. Thompson got one question on the NIE, why not everybody?

Giuliani, again, is a guy who needs more than thirty seconds to get rolling.

Really Got Lost Up There: Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo.

Achieved the Impossible and Made Me Hate Him: Alan Keyes.

* I'm apparently one more Huckabee pun away from being incapable of finishing my sentences.

Newt Gingrich's idea about how a debate for something as serious as the most powerful position on Earth ought to be conducted is looking more and more prescient.

UPDATE: Krauthammer: "the worst debate in Western history."

UPDATE: Dean Barnett (nice gig, Dean!):
"I don't mean to go all East-coast-elitist on you; I'm sure there are people in Iowa who could capably moderate a presidential debate. Unfortunately, and obviously, Carolyn Washburn is not one of them.

The bulk of the post-debate analysis will probably focus on how maladroit Washburn was at the job. She did the impossible--she moderated the last Iowa debate between the Republican candidates before caucuses and yet saw to it that none of the candidates engaged each other. In other words, the moderator ensured that the debate would be as lively as a 12 part PBS series on "How Grass Grows." A personal aside to the Des Moines Register--"boring" is not synonymous with "serious."

The problems went beyond Washburn's lack of mad moderating skillz. From the outset, Washburn announced that the candidates would not be discussing either Iraq or immigration. Swell! It's the biggest debate of the season, so let's take the two biggest issues off the table. For what it's worth, Washburn brought all the charm to her assignment of a latter-day Nurse Ratched.

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