About 25 years ago, I asked Paul Begala, then an adviser to Bill Clinton, how the Democrats failed to pass a health care bill when they controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. Begala identified the party’s fatal mistake as follows (I paraphrase from memory): “We were depending on the media to explain the plan to people, and they had no interest in doing that.”
The Democrats’ misplaced trust that the mainstream media would allow them to make their case to the public above the din of right-wing misinformation continues to derail their legislative and electoral success. It’s as if party leaders have bought into the lie that the media has a liberal bias and so expect at least a fair shake when they present their case to the voters. This repeated triumph of hope over experience has a pathetic quality to it, not unlike, say, Charlie Brown with Lucy and that football.
Forty years of right-wing working the refs has so intimidated members of the mainstream media that they put on kid gloves when dealing with conservative politicians. In 2015, Fox News sponsored the first Republican presidential primary debate, and the network’s lies and fantasies were embedded in the questions. That’s not surprising, considering that most of the nonsense the candidates were peddling originated on Fox. But when the GOP’s candidates agreed to appear in another debate on CNN—which would eventually turn itself into a virtual nonstop infomercial for Donald Trump’s candidacy—the network capitulated to Republican demands by having right-wing huckster Hugh Hewitt among the moderators. In one question, Hewitt told Ben Carson that (I kid you not) “people admire and respect and are inspired by your…kindness” and then asked if he was up to the job of “order[ing] air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores but the hundreds and the thousands.”
In their presidential debates, Democrats naively continue to put themselves at the mercy of reporters and pundits who are eager to prove that they are not the liberal patsies Republicans say they are. During the 2016 election, for instance, the Democrats invited PBS anchors to moderate a primary debate. Right-wing talking points dominated the evening. Judy Woodruff began by informing Bernie Sanders that voters were asking, “How big a role do you foresee for the federal government? It’s already spending 21 percent of the entire US economy. How much larger would government be in the lives of Americans under a Sanders presidency?” Does anyone recall ever meeting a single Democratic voter who professed to care about this? When Sanders put the question in the context of the “massive transfer of wealth going from the hands of working families into the top one-tenth of 1 percent,” Woodruff doubled down. “My question is: How big would government be? Would there be any limit on the size of the role of government?” Incredibly, her colleague Gwen Ifill stuck to the same line of questioning, complaining to Hillary Clinton that she too had “proposed fairly expansive ideas about government” and then twisting polling data to make it appear that people cared. In doing so, the PBS pundits were demanding that Democrats buy into a Tea Party–inspired talking point about big government—one, by the way, that ceased to apply once Trump took over the GOP and increased government spending far beyond what all those Tea Party types had been complaining about.
The debates so far this year have repeated the Democrats’ pattern of assisted suicide by debate moderator. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan quoted the pollster Matt McDermott summarizing CNN’s debate questions as follows: “Why does your health care plan screw the middle class? Why are you taking health care from hard working Americans? Why are you for open borders?” The moderators elevated former representative John Delaney, whose chances of winning the nomination don’t even rise to between slim and none, in order to create the illusion of drama and discord. When Jake Tapper invoked Delaney in his question to Sanders—“You support Medicare for All, which would eventually take private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans in exchange for government-sponsored health care for everyone. Congressman Delaney just referred to it as bad policy, and previously he has called the idea political suicide that will just get President Trump reelected. What do you say to Congressman Delaney?”—the correct answer should have been, “Who the hell is this Delaney fellow anyway, and why don’t you ask me something substantive about how my plan meets the health care crisis that Donald Trump is deliberately stoking?”
During the debate, NBC News took an easy shot at its rival network on its live blog, writing, “Tapper points out that Trump and Bernie both say they’re against military intervention soooooo naturally given the nature of this debate, asks how voters can tell them apart because, ya know, no nuance.” But this was throwing stones from inside a glass house, since the NBC/MSNBC-hosted debates were hardly much better. How dare Lester Holt require the people running for president to answer a question by simply raising their hands like guilty schoolchildren? And has there ever been a stupider debate question than Chuck Todd essentially demanding, “You: Biggest threat to America. One word. Go!”
The purpose of a presidential primary debate is to educate voters about both the issues and the competing candidates. Media conglomerates have no interest in this; they seek only to promote their brands, goose their ratings, and raise their shareholder profits. Why not honor Democratic constituents who are genuinely interested in the issues that the party seeks to address? Why not invite questions from those whose lives will actually be affected by the candidates’ answers? And why not stop playing by the rules of people who long ago ceased to act as honest refs and instead became partisans for nothing but their own profits?