Ain’t Talkin

Charlie Pierce directs me to a piece from Michael Kazin in TNR. Kazin wishes for an Obama-Newt! showdown in the general election because of the intellectual display such a matchup would promise:

Gingrich has already vowed to challenge the president to hold lengthy debates—absent the usual moderators, with their tired Q & A format. Obama would have to agree, lest he seem cowardly. And this could set up the kind of campaign Americans have never witnessed before: a serious debate between articulate exponents of liberalism and conservatism—the ideological conflict that has shaped American politics since the emergence of a mass movement on the right in the 1950s.

Well… OK. Kazin, continuing directly:

Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson could have engaged in such a struggle in 1964. But with a huge and consistent lead in the polls, LBJ had no reason to trade charges with the charismatic senator from Arizona. In 1980, Ronald Reagan bested Jimmy Carter in their single debate with relaxed one-liners, not by advocating conservative principles—and, anyway, Carter was no liberal. The 2000 election is remembered for its long, bitter denouement. But the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush were banal affairs, nicely summarized by David Brooks: “Watching the two candidates speak about their rival plans was like watching an ad war between cellular phone rate plans: My plan gives you more choices! My plan gives you more minutes! My plan gives you free prescription drugs on weekends and holidays.”

Yeah no. First of all, don’t quote David Brooks unless you’re reminding people that he ridiculed and mocked and disparaged the people who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and also derided those hysterical, unSerious liberals who were concerned that the Bush tax cuts would blow a hole in the federal budget.

Which brings me to my second point: Some people don’t remember the 2000 election because it’s debates were “banal affairs.” Some people remember 2000 for a different reason. It is interesting that Kazin quotes Brooks, who, as I just mentioned, was a big fan of the Bush tax cuts. Funny enough, Al Gore tried to convey to the country just how disastrous said tax cuts would be during the election and during the debates. Guess what? The media just couldn’t be bothered. Oh, and lest ye forget, if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent (fingers cross they won’t be, but it’ll be a struggle), the deficit’s components look like this:

Yeah. Such banal, useless debates! If only Gore had only tried to clarify some important matters for the country…

And that brings me to my overall problem with the Kazin piece. Later on Kazin writes:

In other words, we would have a fair chance of having a true contest of ideas and ideals between two smart men. Newt would force Obama to talk about his principles and not just his programs—or rather how the latter flows from the former. The debates would sharpen the terms of political discourse in a healthy rather than demagogic fashion: Standing just feet away from the president, Newt would probably refrain from ranting about the Democrat’s “secular socialist agenda,” and Obama would not be able to get away with empty talk about “winning the future.”

Note the absurdity of the bolded line, although the opening sentence in the graph is pretty silly as well. You know why this won’t happen? You know why if even there is a Lincoln-Douglas-style series of debates there won’t be a “true contest of ideas and ideals” between the two men?

Because our media system can’t handle it. Let’s do an MSNBC edition: Gingrich will makes some dumb claim that his flat tax would help out poor people or not give a windfall to wealthy people or whatever. Obama will call him out for it. Ari Fleischer will appear, touting a Heritage report that backs up Newt’s claim. Ari Melber will try to call Fleischer out for his crap over the hysterical screams of whatever “conservative” guest appears with Melber and then the host would leave it there. Mark Halperin will get 15 minutes to expound on why the president always uses such divisive rhetoric. Joe Scarborough will lament the president’s partisanship, wondering why Congress can’t come together anymore. Mark McKinnon will stress that if we just elected a third-party candidate financed entirely by hedge fund managers there would be sunshine and puppies and we’d all get laid. Chuck Todd will wonder what this controversy means for the 2012 election and how the various factual claims will be parsed by bowling-league uncles. Chris Matthews will talk about his new book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. And that’s on the liberal channel.

The reason this country won’t have the debate that Kazin yearns for isn’t because of the laughable formats of our political “debates.” It’s because of the people who cover those debates. Kazin closes with this:

After such debates, an Obama victory would signify more than just the re-election of a moderately popular president over an opponent who fails to inspire the base of his own party—as happened with both Bob Dole in 1996 and John Kerry in 2004. It would expose the moral and logical defects of the conservative ideology that has been mostly dominant in the U.S. since 1980, even under Democratic presidents. Then, perhaps, a true liberal revival could begin.

Good gravy. If the Bush years didn’t convince Americans of the “moral and logical defects of the conservative ideology,” how the hell does Kazin think that a Gingrich candidacy will do so? And, lest we all forget the 2010 midterms, the Bush years did not convince Americans of all that stuff. Pierce, in linking to Kazin’s article, terms it, “[a] curious, and ultimately frustrating, piece.” That’s much too kind.


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