Having been in three cities in seven days, I was too exhausted to post much on last night’s debate and now it seems that most of what can and should be said has been said. But there is one point worth making, I think. There’s a lot of chatter about how especially biased and terrible last night’s debate was. It’s certainly true that the moderators came into the debate ill-prepared to back up their condescension and accusations-formed-as-questions. But I think the focus on how bad last night’s debate was misses the real problem. While I don’t particularly love gotchya questions and inquiries merely intended to put candidates in a rhetorical Catch-22, this is the life presidential candidates have chosen and they should be prepared for such things. What truly vexes me is that Democrats aren’t treated nearly so rough. As I put it in a column after the first Democratic debate, “Republicans are always asked to justify their conservatism in a way that puts them either at odds with their supporters or with the public.”
Take abortion. Republicans are routinely asked “surely you can’t be serious” questions about rape-and-incest exclusions. But when was the last time a Democrat was asked, “Do you really believe that a healthy second or third trimester fetus can be killed on a whim?” Or “Do you really believe that an unfettered right to sex-selection abortion — which overwhelmingly terminates females in the womb — is a constitutional right?”
I don’t think last night’s debate touched on abortion, which surprised me. Then again, it was supposed to be about economics. Even so, the same dynamic was at work. Leave aside the fact that the questions were poorly researched and, quite often, smug, they also tended to start from an ideological premise that tax cuts must be “paid for.” That is an entirely defensible — if occasionally problematic — position. But in the Democratic debate, where trillions of dollars in new spending was proposed by the various candidates, the question of how to pay for it rarely came up, except when the candidates themselves shouted about how they’ll make the rich pay for everything. It’s a remarkable thing: When Republicans talk about how they want to let more Americans keep the money they earn, they are grilled about how much that will cost. But when Democrats talk about how much of our money they want to spend, they’re rarely held to account for how that would work. That’s because the real storyline — one intimately subscribed to by the media — is that Republicans are greedy while Democrats are compassionate, even though Republicans are the ones who don’t want to take other peoples’ money.
Ultimately, the real problem is that the media works from the unspoken assumption that Democrats are normal while Republicans aren’t. Many MSM journalists think asking tough, even unfair, questions of Republicans is their job. They’re congratulated for it by the media critics and by Democratic activists who are often friends or even spouses of the reporters. Asking similar questions of the Democrats is considered gauche water-carrying for conservatives. That’s one reason why so many liberals grew to revile Tim Russert. The late Meet the Press host was a liberal, to be sure. But he understood what his job was supposed to be. He wasn’t flawless, but he was certainly better than what we’ve been seeing so far this season.