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Roughly 20 minutes into last night's Republican presidential debate, MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked Rep. Ron Paul, who is -- with a few exceptions here and there -- generally opposed to the existence of the federal government, if he would work to phase out the IRS as president. "That's what they call a softball," Matthews noted.
He needn't have bothered with the disclaimer. By that point, viewers couldn't have been surprised.
After all, Matthews began the debate by grooving a pitch for Rudy Giuliani: "Mayor Giuliani, how do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?"
Matthews' second question during last night's debate went to Sen. John McCain: "What would you need, as commander in chief, to win the war in Iraq?" When McCain answered that he would "need the support of the American people," Matthews declined to ask the obvious follow-up -- How are you going to get it, given that the American people want out of this war? -- instead asking, "Do you need anything, beyond what the president has now, to win the war?"
Roughly three weeks ago, Matthews all but endorsed McCain, declaring that he "deserves to be president."
Not that Giuliani and McCain are the only Republican candidates for whom Matthews has expressed fondness -- he recently swooned over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's "perfect hair" and "great chin."
Nor has Matthews waited for Republicans to announce their intentions to run before lavishing them with praise: He has said former Sen. Fred Thompson "looks like a movie star," adding that "people like movie stars," and he has described an interview he conducted with Thompson as an example of "when you fall in love with politicians."
So it wasn't entirely surprising to see the Hardball host spend valuable time playing softball with the GOP candidates. For example:
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Senator McCain. We're in the house of Ronald Reagan. Every cab driver in America knew what Ronald Reagan stood for: defeat communism abroad; reduce big government at home. Can you, Senator McCain, restore that kind of unity of purpose?
Seeing McCain get a chance to take some swings at such a fat pitch apparently provoked a bit of jealousy in his opponents. As McCain was wrapping up his answer, Matthews announced: "Two or three gentlemen have asked to respond to that. First Congressman [Duncan] Hunter, and then Governor [Mike] Huckabee, and then Senator -- those three."
Three other candidates falling over each other to get a chance to answer a question they weren't asked is a pretty good indication that the question may have been a tad on the easy side.
But it would get easier. Later in the debate, Matthews asked Giuliani the comparatively tricky "Has the increased influence of Christian conservatives in your party been good for it?" After Giuliani avoided answering the question ("Sure. The increased influence of large numbers of people are always good for us," Giuliani began, before moving even further away from any discussion of the influence of Christian conservatives on the GOP), Matthews turned to former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, and asked: "Governor Thompson, same question. Well, actually, you could respond to just about anything at this point."
Well, actually, you could respond to just about anything at this point.
And, indeed, the candidates could. Matthews and his co-moderators (John Harris and Jim VandeHei of The Politico) often let the candidates get away with avoiding their questions entirely. For example:
Moderator: Mayor Giuliani, Bradley Winters of New York would like to know if there's anything you learned or regret during your time as mayor in your dealings with the African-American community?
Giuliani: There's a great deal that I learned and a great deal that I regret during the time I was mayor, and a great deal I was very, very satisfied with. I tried very, very hard to treat everyone in New York City the same. We reduced crime by 67 percent. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of that would have been in the poorer neighborhoods of New York City, not necessarily the African-American community but a lot of the communities of New York City. And I worked very, very hard to try to move hundreds of thousands of people out of welfare.
We actually followed Tommy Thompson's program, and we had the most successful welfare-to-work program in the country. We moved 660,000 people off welfare. And I think one of the reasons that crime is still down in New York today... [ellipsis in MSNBC transcript]
Moderator: That's the time, Mayor.
Giuliani: Thank you.
Giuliani didn't even come close to pretending to answer the question. Asked what he regretted about his "dealings with the African-American community" as mayor of New York, Giuliani replied by bragging that African-Americans were among the beneficiaries of a reduction in crime that occurred while he was mayor. That cannot, under even the most generous interpretation, be construed as an actual answer to the question.
Yet the moderator simply moved on, to Romney: "What do you dislike most about America?" Romney didn't really answer, either, declaring "Gosh. I love America," then explained why.
Which isn't to say the moderators never jumped in when a candidate avoided a question or made a statement of dubious accuracy. Matthews, for example, jumped in to challenge Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo's joking reference to Air Force One looming above the auditorium:
TANCREDO: And as a matter of fact, this is as close as I've ever been to Air Force One.
MATTHEWS: Well, by the way, this isn't still the Air Force One.
TANCREDO: To the replica...
TANCREDO: ... of Air Force One. Exactly.
Whew. Good thing Tancredo didn't get away with that.
Not all of the questions Matthews, Harris, and VandeHei asked were softballs, of course. And there's nothing wrong with the occasional softball, anyway: Giving candidates a chance to explain their policy positions and what their priorities as president would be -- particularly this early in the campaign -- is probably a good thing.
But some of the questions not asked last night are awfully curious, particularly in light of the questions that were asked during last week's Democratic debate, also broadcast on MSNBC and moderated by a high-profile NBC host, Brian Williams.
During the Democratic debate, Williams asked about so-called "Elephants in the Room," which he described as "uncomfortable questions about issues or beliefs attached, for whatever reason, to all of you -- perception issues, for lack of a better word." "Elephants in the Room," indeed: The questions may as well have been written by the Republican National Committee's communications department. Take the first, for example:
WILLIAMS: Senator [Barack] Obama, you go first. You've promised in your campaign a new kind of politics, but just this week, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on questionable ties you have with a donor who was charged last year for demanding kickbacks on Illinois business deals. Aren't you practicing the very same kind of politics that many of the others on this stage have engaged in?
If the goal was to make both Obama and his Democratic rivals look bad, this was an almost perfectly crafted question. In just two sentences, Williams suggested to viewers:
1. Barack Obama is a hypocrite ("You've promised ... but ... Aren't you?")
2. Barack Obama is a crook ("... questionable ties ... charged last year ... demanding kickbacks ... ")
3. So are the other Democratic candidates (" ... the very same kind of politics that many of the others on this stage have engaged in ... ")
Though the wording of the question was, well, questionable, there's nothing terribly unusual about a debate moderator asking a candidate about his personal finances.
In fact, one of the most obvious questions for last night's Republican debate was about Giuliani's business partner, Bernard Kerik. As The New York Times explained last month:
The New York Times reported Friday that Mr. Giuliani may have been told that the former commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik, had a relationship to a company suspected of having ties to organized crime -- an accusation the company denies -- even before he chose Mr. Kerik to head the New York Police Department.
Mr. Kerik, who has been under federal investigation in recent months, turned down a plea deal several weeks ago in which federal prosecutors offered to allow him to admit to tax fraud and conspiring to eavesdrop illegally in exchange for a two-year prison term, according to a person briefed on the case. Charges against Mr. Kerik are possible in the coming weeks, several people briefed on the case have said.
After Mr. Giuliani left office, he and Mr. Kerik were partners in a security consulting business. And in 2005, he supported President Bush's choice of Mr. Kerik as federal secretary of homeland security, a selection that was withdrawn as questions were raised about Mr. Kerik.
Mr. Kerik pleaded guilty last year in a New York State court to two misdemeanor charges, admitting that he illegally accepted $165,000 in free renovations of his apartment from a contracting company, Interstate Industrial Corporation, which city regulators suspect of having ties to organized crime.
The Times reported on Friday that Mr. Giuliani, testifying under oath in April 2006, told a grand jury that the former city commissioner of investigation remembered briefing him on some aspects of Mr. Kerik's relationship to Interstate in 2000, before he named Mr. Kerik as police commissioner.
Strangely, though, Giuliani wasn't asked about Kerik during last night's debate. When the Democrats debated, Brian Williams asked Barack Obama a loaded question about his ties to a controversial figure. But Rudy Giuliani's relationship with Bernard Kerik -- which could charitably be described as one of the most spectacular examples of poor judgment by a national figure in the past decade -- didn't even come up during the Republican debate. Chris Matthews didn't say a word. Nor did he ask John McCain about his role in the Keating Five scandal.
In fact, none of the Republican candidates got a single question about their business dealings, personal finances, or ties to controversial figures. Only Democrats got such questions.
That wasn't the only blindingly obvious question Matthews and his co-hosts decided not to ask Giuliani. Roughly halfway through the debate, Matthews asked McCain:
MATTHEWS: Senator McCain, when you announced last week, you took a couple of shots at incompetence in government. You talked about you wouldn't put up with having police and fire radios on different frequencies. And I somehow got the idea you were talking about New York City.
McCain denied that he had been talking about New York City. And, strangely, Matthews didn't ask Giuliani about New York City fire radios, even after raising the issue in his question to McCain. As Media Matters has explained:
[Giuliani has been criticized] by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and a New York City IAFF union affiliate that had supported President Bush's re-election in 2004. As Media Matters noted, some of those criticisms were expressed in a February 28 draft letter from the IAFF to its union members. Additionally, a March 15 Cox News Service article reported: "As revered as he is by many for his efforts after the attacks, Giuliani is reviled by some firefighters who believe he mishandled the development of a radio system that could have saved lives on 9/11 and turned his back on first responders' remains in the rubble." A March 30 Associated Press article further noted September 11 criticisms by the IAFF and by Sally Regenhard, chairwoman of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and mother of a firefighter killed on 9/11. The AP noted that the Giuliani "administration's failure to provide the World Trade Center's first responders with adequate radios [is] a long-standing complaint from relatives of the firefighters killed when the twin towers collapsed. The Sept. 11 Commission noted the firefighters at the World Trade Center were using the same ineffective radios employed by the first responders to the 1993 terrorist attack on the trade center."
Yet even after hinting at this controversy in his question to McCain, Matthews didn't ask Giuliani about it. To be fair, Matthews did manage to resist calling Giuliani a "hero." Still, the omission was simply bizarre, particularly given that just two days earlier, Matthews hosted a guest who questioned Giuliani's handling of September 11, leading Matthews to wonder: "So, why do people think he did serve well and perform well, as the leader of New York, during that crisis? Why do people think that?"
But the most glaring omission during the Republican debate may have been the moderators' repeated failure to ask the candidates how they would pay for their tax cuts or how they would deal with the deficit.
All evening, Matthews, Harris, and VandeHei managed to look at 10 prominent Republicans, several of whom have served in the United States Congress during the past six years, without once asking what they would do to fix the deficit they and the Republican president created. Well, that's not quite true: McCain got this question:
MODERATOR: Chris Harris from Manhattan, Kansas, is very concerned about the budget and about deficits. He wants to know, what specific programs would you cut if you were president?
He didn't answer it, though, talking instead about wanting a line-item veto and getting "cost overruns" associated with "defense acquisition" "under control" -- but not actually mentioning any specific programs he would cut.
And, of course, he wasn't pressed to do so by his gracious hosts.
On another occasion, John Harris had an opportunity to question how Republicans would pay for tax cuts, when he asked McCain about his flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts:
HARRIS: Senator McCain, some of your colleagues have been hit pretty hard on flip-flops, but you now support extending President Bush's tax cuts. But you originally voted against them. That makes no sense.
That was the whole question. Harris didn't quote McCain's original argument against the Bush tax cuts and ask him to reconcile that with his current support for extending the cuts. He didn't ask McCain about the effect the cuts have had on the deficit or about the effect their extension would have. He didn't ask McCain any of the countless meaningful questions he could have asked. Instead, he simply "asked": "That makes no sense."
And immediately following McCain's answer, Matthews announced, "I want each candidate to mention a tax you'd like to cut, in addition to the Bush tax cuts, keeping them in effect."
Rather than asking them how they would pay for extending the Bush tax cuts or fix the deficit they created in the first place, Matthews simply asked them to name some more taxes they'd like to cut -- no need to explain how they'd pay for those, either! He just handed them our wallet and let them loose in the candy store.
Again, a contrast to the Democratic debate is instructive. A week ago, Democratic candidates were repeatedly asked about their health care plans. Well, that isn't quite true: They were repeatedly asked how they would pay for their health care plans:
- WILLIAMS: Let's talk about health care, an issue that currently ranks a solid second in virtually every opinion poll in the United States. [Former] Senator [John] Edwards , you have said you would raise taxes to pay for a health care plan. The question is: Which ones?
- WILLIAMS: Senator Obama, how would you pay for your plan?
- WILLIAMS: Senator [Hillary] Clinton, you're perhaps more closely associated with this issue than anyone on this stage. How would you pay for your plan?
Notice anything missing? Williams didn't bother to ask the candidates to tell us what their health care plans are. Didn't ask them what, if anything, they would do to provide health care to the uninsured. Williams knew that health care "currently ranks a solid second in virtually every opinion poll," but he didn't really want to hear about it. Instead, he cut right to the chase: Don't bore us with talk of providing health care, just tell us what taxes you'd raise to pay for it. As Obama noted in response: "Well, first of all, let me tell you what I would do."
In short: The Democratic candidates weren't asked what they would do to improve health care, only how they would pay for it. The Republican candidates, by contrast, were asked what taxes they would cut, but not how they would pay for the cuts.
Matthews & Co.'s handling (or lack thereof) of taxes may have been the lowlight of the evening from a policy standpoint, but the most jaw-droppingly inane question was still to come. In the late innings, Matthews managed to come up with a contender for the dubious title of "Worst Question Ever Asked in a Presidential Debate":
MATTHEWS: I want to ask you a question almost as much fun -- I want to get to the next question. I'm sorry, because you can expand on your thought as part of this answer. I asked about raising taxes. It was almost like the Reagan round here. Everybody wanted to do that. I'm sure he was listening to that good thought. But let me ask you about something else that might be a negative in the upcoming campaign. Seriously. Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?
Maybe the fact that Matthews had to make clear in the middle of his question that he was being serious should have given him pause, should have led him to reconsider at the last minute.
But Chris Matthews' creepy obsession with the Clintons' marriage was apparently too strong to resist.
Put that creepy obsession aside for a moment: With a finite amount of time remaining, Chris Matthews thought the best use of that time would be to ask a group of Republicans who want to be president if they thought it would be good for America if a Democrat was elected president.
What the heck did he think they would say? What the heck did he think the audience would learn from such an answer? What the heck is wrong with this man?
More than one thing, most likely. But that creepy obsession with the Clintons is certainly one of them. Matthews simply cannot stop talking about their marriage, about whether Bill Clinton will "behave" or whether he'll be a "distraction."
Moderating a presidential debate featuring a candidate -- Rudy Giuliani -- whose current wife is his third, who told his second wife he was divorcing her via a press conference, who moved out of the mayor's mansion to continue cheating on her in peace, and whose first marriage was to his second cousin, Matthews just couldn't stop thinking about the Clintons' marriage.
And so he asked what may be the dumbest question ever asked in a presidential debate: Would it be good if a Democrat is elected president? Matthews asked a group of Republicans who want to be president.
We never did learn how the Republican presidential hopefuls would pay for the tax cut wish-list Matthews urged them to detail. But we did learn that none of the Republican presidential candidates wants a Democrat to be elected president.
Good thing we got that straight.
We devoted last week's column to The Washington Post's David Broder, titan of journalism. The proximate cause of that column was Broder's much-derided comparison of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Broder suggested that Reid's Democratic colleagues were unhappy with his performance and that they might look to replace him. The entire Democratic caucus promptly responded by sending a letter to the Post expressing its support for Reid and praising him as an "extraordinary leader."
At this point, there isn't much left to be said, but Broder's reaction this week to the controversy is worthy of brief mention.
Appearing on The Bob Edwards Show this week, Broder said it is "doubtful" that victory in Iraq is possible. Just four days earlier, Broder had assailed Reid's "ineptitude" because of Reid's suggestion that the war "is lost." That seems to speak for itself.
Broder also sarcastically addressed the unanimous support for Reid expressed by the senator's Democratic colleagues:
BRODER: I thought it was terribly moving that 50 Democratic senators, including one who's been hospitalized for months and has not made it to the Senate floor, spontaneously put their names on the letter to you and to The Washington Post, condemning me for what I had said about their leader, Harry Reid.
During an online discussion with Post readers on May 4, Broder again sarcastically described the Democrats' letter: "Since I would never question their motives, I have to assume that they spontaneously and simultaneously chose to express their confidence in their leader on the same day last week."
Broder seems to think he's making some kind of point with his sarcastic references to spontaneity. He isn't.
Of course the letter was not spontaneous. Of course it isn't a coincidence that they "simultaneously" signed the letter. Broder claimed Senate Democrats are unhappy with Reid. In response to that claim, every Senate Democrat signed a letter praising Reid. Now Broder seems to suggest that the fact that they rebutted his claim substantiates it.
It is certainly possible that some, many, or all of the Democrats who signed the letter were insincere. But the fact that they all signed the letter is not, despite what Broder seems to think, evidence that they don't believe it. If one or more Democratic senators has said things to Broder that lead him to believe the letter is insincere, he should simply and clearly say so. He needn't name his source if confidentiality was promised. But Broder has not made such a statement, even when he was essentially invited to do so by a reader:
Asheville, N.C.: You wrote in your column of April 26 that Senators in both parties (indeed, a long list of them) were dissatisfied and embarrassed, etc. about Harry Reid. What Democratic senators were on that long list? What was your source? Do you stand by what you reported in that column?
David S. Broder: Yes, I do. The senators will have to speak for themselves, but his record speaks volumes.
Broder is unwilling to simply say that Democratic senators have told him they are "ready" for Reid's "exhibition of ineptitude to end" -- even without naming them. Instead, he relies on sarcastic insinuations that their praise for Reid is insincere.
That, too, speaks volumes.