I have a very high regard for Ross Douthat of The Atlantic, exceeded only by Ramesh Ponnuru as a conservative commentator who consistently manages to rise above talking-points-distribution and cant, and make us all think twice about our comfortable partisan assumptions. But his contribution today to the backlash against the backlash to the ABC-sponsored Democratic debate last week is disappointing.
At considerable length, Douthat defends what he calls “the freakshow” of non-substantive candidate grilling on this basic ground:
[W]hen we elect a new chief executive, we aren’t just electing to live with their policy positions. We’re deciding to live with their personalities – their sexual appetites and Daddy issues, their spouses and their friends, their religious beliefs and their psychodramas – for four or eight long years.
Well, of course. But do we really need obsessive dwelling on such “issues” in network-broadcast candidate debates to give the country a peek at the personalities of potential presidents? Reading Ross, you’d think we were still living in the long-lost days when clubby journalists conspired to stifle reporting or discussion about, say, John F. Kennedy’s sex life or Richard Nixon’s use of profanity. They are truly long lost, for better or for worse.
So the question right now is not whether the public has a right to know about Obama’s choice of ministers or what a sociologist might deduce from what Obama or HRC says privately to donors, but whether that’s all the public needs to know. There is zero question that Americans know a lot more about certain of Jeremiah Wright’s opinions than those of Barack Obama on a host of subjects. It’s also clear that voters have massive sources of “information,” positive and negative, real and contrived and manufactured, about the personalities and “stories” of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. How much is enough? How much is too much? And if “debates” need to focus on such matters, why do we bother having supposedly sober journalists moderate? Why not just let Drudge and Dowd moderate, and show the whole thing on Entertainment Tonight?
Generally speaking, ABC’s defenders are depicting its critics as naive and wonky elitists who don’t understand real politics, or conversely, as cynics who are only upset that the debate didn’t go well for Barack Obama. I can’t speak for all the critics, but I have to say my own outrage at the debate was on the order of “Enough’s enough.” Contra Ross Douthat, my own fear is that we are in danger of electing a chief executive with far too little emphasis on their “policy positions” as opposed to their “personalities”–just as, arguably, we did in 2000 and 2004. And my only partisanship in rejecting the final descent into largely substance-free debates isn’t about Obama versus Clinton, but instead reflects an informed opinion that Republicans desperately want to make the general election a contest of “personalities” rather than “policy positions.”
Given his general body of work, I wouldn’t accuse Ross Douthat of that motive. But the idea that Americans need more and more of a style of campaign coverage that even he describes as a “freakshow” clearly ought to raise more suspicions of candidate or party special pleading than the views of the “freakshow’s” critics.