A Constitution-themed debate that ignored critical issues related to -- you guessed it -- the Constitution
Wednesday night, ABC broadcast a debate between the Democratic presidential candidates from the National Constitution Center, which co-sponsored the debate. The venue inspired ABC to, as co-moderator Charlie Gibson explained, "begin each of the segments of this debate with short quotes from the Constitution that are apropos to what we're going to talk about."
It seemed that, at long last, a presidential debate might actually touch on the profound constitutional issues at stake in this year's election. Last November, I noted the absence of these issues from the debates:
Through 17 debates this year, roughly 1,500 questions have been asked of the two parties' presidential candidates. But only a small handful of questions have touched on the candidates' views on executive power, the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, or other civil liberties concerns. ... Only one question about wiretapping. Not a single question about FISA. ... Not one question about renditions. The words "habeas corpus" have not once been spoken by a debate moderator. Candidates have not been asked about telecom liability. ... No moderator has asked a single question of a single candidate about whether the president should be able to order the indefinite detention of an American citizen, without charging the prisoner with any crime.
Things haven't gotten any better since then, as Media Matters explained in January.
Surely a presidential debate held at the National Constitution Center and featuring "short quotes from the Constitution that are apropos to what we're going to talk about" would touch on some of these issues.
Unfortunately, ABC had other ideas. The Constitution served as little more than window dressing for a debate that has been widely derided. Early in the debate, Gibson referred to a clause in the Constitution that was repealed more than 200 years ago and that wouldn't apply to the situation he was discussing even if it were still in effect. Later, Gibson asked whether a District of Columbia law prohibiting the possession of certain types of guns is "consistent with an individual's right to bear arms."
That's as close as the ABC hosts came to delving into the candidates' views of the Constitution. There was, once again, no mention of the constitutional issues raised by the current administration's actions.
That omission is all the more striking given that ABC News recently broke the news that the most senior members of the Bush administration -- Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell among them -- were involved in the decision to use interrogation techniques widely considered to be torture. As Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Alterman has noted, "ABC News ... followed up on the story over the next few days with admirable tenacity" and aired an interview in which President Bush himself said he approved of the decision by senior officials to authorize waterboarding.
But Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos didn't ask Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton whether they would continue the Bush administration's torture policies, or their views on wiretapping Americans without a warrant or on the validity of Dick Cheney's assertions that he is a separate branch of government.
And yet -- after yet another presidential debate came and went without a moderator asking a single question about some of the most serious issues of our time, issues that go to the heart of who we are as a nation -- some in the media defended ABC's focus on political controversies by asserting that substantive issues have already been hashed and rehashed.
Washington Post reporter Anne Kornblut said on MSNBC yesterday, "I'm no media critic, but in defense of it last night, the second half of the debate was substantive. But the problem they faced was that this was the 21st debate. This campaign has been going on forever, 15 months, and a lot of the substantive differences between the two candidates has been hashed out."
Kornblut's assertion that the second half of the debate was "substantive" was overly generous. While the second half did feature questions about, for example, tax policy, several of those questions were deeply flawed. At one point, for example, Gibson asserted that "history shows that when you drop the capital-gains tax, the revenues go up." In fact, history does not show that.
Kornblut should know this; her own newspaper's "live fact check" of the debate noted: "Gibson must be unduly worried about his stock portfolio. Gibson is right that a cut in capital gains taxes results in a brief increase in revenue, but that's only because stockholders decide to unload some stocks they have held in the new tax regime; there is less incentive to sell the stock if you know the rate is going to soon drop." (The last time Gibson moderated a Democratic presidential debate, back in January, he falsely claimed that $200,000 a year is a typical income for a husband and wife who are both schoolteachers. The audience laughed at him.)
But the second part of Kornblut's defense of the ABC debate was far worse. Yes, there have been many debates -- reporters have been complaining about how many debates there have been for nearly as long as the debates have been happening. But it simply isn't the case that the large number of debates means all the issues have been "hashed out." Many extremely important issues have been ignored during those debates -- executive power, torture, habeas corpus, FISA, and global climate change among them.
David Bohrman, who oversees all of the political coverage at CNN, took particular issue with the lapel-flag question, which was posed to Mr. Obama by a voter appearing on tape. Mr. Bohrman said he would have instead had the moderators ask each candidate about their stance on a possible amendment to the Constitution banning flag-burning. "That's a legitimate flag question," Mr. Bohrman said. "I think the voters are expecting more from us."
Bohrman had the good sense to realize that there are more important things at stake in this election than whether someone wears a lapel pin. And he even suggested a question about the Constitution instead -- but it wasn't about whether the government should be able to listen to your phone calls or hold you indefinitely without charging you with a crime. No, to CNN's David Bohrman, the most pressing constitutional matter of our time is apparently ... flag burning.
Two weeks ago, Time's Mark Halperin quoted NBC's Brian Williams:
People say all the time that there have been so many debates. I'm kind of startled to hear that occasional person say, "I still don't have the information I need," or "I'm not satisfied with the coverage thus far." The coverage has been molecular given the amount of media out there. I did notice a two-day period recently where the nation went without a debate, and I was horrified.
Then, last week, MSNBC's Chris Matthews announced: "I don't know what more information we need. I think we could vote now."
It never even seems to cross their minds that voters might want to know -- that they should know -- what the candidates think about the Bush administration's assertions of executive power and what, if anything, they will do to restore traditional checks and balances, protect the privacy of American citizens, and end the use of torture.