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April 17, 2008

Obama vs. Hillary in Philly: The Big Loser is ABC


PHILADELPHIA – At the gleaming new National Constitution Center here in Philadelphia, I attended Wednesday night’s presidential debate. It was the 21st Democratic debate of the cycle – held in the same building where Barack Obama delivered his famous “race” speech last month. The actual debate was held in a tiny, tiny room where I once saw a very affecting presentation about the Declaration of Independence. On posters and press passes alike, the event is billed as “Clinton vs. Obama,” as though it were a prize fight or something.


And as though the campaign hadn’t been trivialized enough, the story of the night was that the moderators, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, asked shamefully superficial and gotcha-oriented questions, which did not even begin to reach substantial policy issues until the debate was nearly an hour old.


The entire first half of the debate consisted almost entirely of rehashes of the nonsense non-stories of the past month – it was all-Wright, all-“bitter,” all-Bosnia sniper fire, all flag pin all the time. If policy or issues were discussed at all in the debate’s first 45 minutes, it came from the candidates, not the moderators. This was the first debate since those stories broke, so I knew they’d be brought up. But I had no idea that half the debate would be devoted to questions about nothing.


And even after the March and April non-scandals were rehashed yet again, we got an argument over “issues” like the flag pin and William Ayers – the sort of stuff that only right-wing bloggers and e-mail forwarders care about. That’s right, the Weather Underground received nearly 10 minutes of discussion time in the first network debate of the year.


It was quite refreshing when Obama responded to yet another of the ridiculous questions by saying that “I hope we don’t get so obsessed with gaffes that we fail to see the truth” – that this is a crucial time in our country’s history. Amen to that. Hillary didn’t help matters, at one point even bringing up Louis Farrakhan and Hamas, out of context, in a monologue sure to be quoted all week long by Fox News. Gibson finally asked the debate’s first policy question, about Iraq, 52 minutes after it began.


As a result of this, since he spent the first half of the debate defending himself against smears, Obama spoke for more than 60 percent of the time, giving Hillary much more time in the second half, when actual issues were discussed. The second half of the debate was handled slightly better, even though the capital gains tax was discussed more than anything else, and Gibson, somewhat absurdly, defined “middle class” as making less than $200,000 a year.


Not to mention – how in the world can George Stephanopoulos moderate a presidential debate involving Hillary Clinton, when he worked for Bill Clinton for years, in the campaign and the White House? I’m not calling him biased – George seemed pretty evenhanded in his questions – but isn’t that a pretty clear appearance of a conflict of interest?


It was a great day, though, until the questions started. The scene before the debate was something to behold. On 6th and Arch streets on the corner of Independence Mall, rival groups of Hillary and Obama supporters, with bullhorns, yelled at each other for several hours. Even some anti-abortion people showed up, with some sort of purple inflatable thing in tow that may or may not have been a mock fetus.


I very much enjoyed taking all this in. But the funny part is that most of the media here have been on the campaign trail for months, have been to 15-20 debates before this one, and they just want this whole thing to be over.


Who won the debate? Obama looked shaky. He seemed tired, like he wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t at his best. Hillary, though, didn’t do anything to distinguish herself, and bringing up the F-word – Farrakhan – could backfire on her.


But the big loser was unquestionably ABC. The big story from the night was the appalling triviality and shameless gotcha games, from a pair of moderators obviously much more interested in superficial scandals than the many issues that are actually important to the country.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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