George Stephanopoulos has addressed criticism of his and Charles Gibson’s conduct as moderators in last night’s ABC-sponsored Democratic candidate debate, in the form of an interview with TalkingPointsMemo’s Greg Sargent. And George went straight to the “electability” defense:
Stephanopoulos strongly defended his handling of the debate. He dismissed criticism that it had focused too heavily on “gotcha” questions, arguing that they had gone to the heart of the “electability” that, he said, is forefront in the minds of voters evaluating the two Dems.
Ah yes, “electability,” which makes discussion of any criticism of a candidate, frivolous or serious, instantly relevant, on the theory that the opposition will hit the nominee with all this crap, so we might as well see how they handle its endless repetition today.
There are several problems with this line of “reasoning” that arrogates to journalists (not to mention the candidates themselves) the right–nay, the responsibility–to ape the nastiest hit tactics they can imagine emanating from conservatives later this year.
First of all, why is Stephanopoulos all that sure that “electability” is in the “forefront in the minds of voters evaluating” Obama and Clinton? Maybe he thinks that’s the only significant difference between the two candidates, and maybe he’s tired of hearing their substantive pitches, but that’s not necessarily true of actual voters who have heard far less of their policy ideas lately than any manner of gotcha stuff or “symbolism.”
Second of all, “electability” is a highly speculative concept at this stage of the presidential election cycle. Who knows how “electable” Obama, Clinton or McCain is going to look in October? I don’t; you don’t; George Stephanopoulos doesn’t; and grilling the candidates on their alleged “vulnerabilities” doesn’t cast much real light on that question, either.
Third of all, to the extent that we can measure “electability,” there’s a form of evidence that’s a lot more persuasive than how Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton answer nasty, contrived questions. It’s called general election trial polling. And so far, both candidates remain highly competitive, in roughly equal measure, with John McCain, even though McCain is benefitting from (a) an early nomination win, (b) years of positive media attention, (c) a heavy media focus on Democratic infighting, and (d) relatively low levels of scrutiny of the relationship between his current platform and his record. Unless the entire general election is going to be fought out over Barack Obama’s attitude towards flag pins or Hillary Clinton’s experience one day in Kosovo, then it’s hard to understand why such matters are the key to measuring “electability” for the Democratic voters of Pennslyvania.
And last of all, if “electability” was indeed the focus of ABC’s moderators last night, did it occur to them that asking the candidates how, exactly, they’d criticize McCain and his platform and record on this or that issue might be relevant to the topic? After all, the general election isn’t going to be merely an extended interview of the two candidates by the news media over their personal “stories.” What do they think of McCain’s new tax plan? How about his difficult-to-reconcile position on torture by the military and torture by the CIA? How will they handle his profession of being simultaneously a “maverick” and a rigorous foot-solider of the conservative movement? What if anything will they say about his foreign policy advisors? And on and on.
The more you look at it, the “electability” defense for endlessly superficial debates–and media “coverage” of campaigns in general–doesn’t make much sense. If George just came right out and said his network needed “fireworks” to boost ratings, it would sound more plausible.