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Daily Howler: Her colleagues began zoning out, Katty said, because the debate was so serious
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WHEN KATTY MET CHARLIE! Her colleagues began zoning out, Katty said, because the debate was so serious: // link // print // previous // next //

Brokaw and the corps’ broken intellect: In our view, Tom Brokaw performed rather poorly at Tuesday night’s debate. One presentation typified the work of his lofty press caste. What he said can be defended as technically accurate. But what he said about Social Security was typically misleading:

BROKAW (10/7/08): We have a question from Langdon in Ballston Spa, New York, and that's about huge unfunded obligations for Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs that will soon eat up all of the revenue that's in place and then go into a deficit position.

Since the rules are pretty loose here, I'm going to add my own to this one. Instead of having a discussion, let me ask you as a coda to that: Would you give Congress a date certain to reform Social Security and Medicare within two years after you take office? Because in a bipartisan way, everyone agrees, that's a big ticking time bomb that will eat us up maybe even more than the mortgage crisis.

For the record, Brokaw said he had a question from someone named Langdon—but he never actually read it. Instead, he rattled off his own presentation—a presentation which may have misled many viewers.

From Brokaw’s presentation, many viewers may have gotten the idea that Social Security “will soon eat up all of the revenue that's in place and then go into a deficit position”—that Social Security is “a big ticking time bomb that will eat us up maybe even more than the mortgage crisis.” But barring economic meltdown, that simply isn’t the case. Indeed, even McCain drew an instant distinction when he gave his answer:

MCCAIN: Look, it's not that hard to fix Social Security, Tom. It's just tough decisions.

BROKAW: And Medicare.

MCCAIN: I want to get to Medicare in a second. Social Security is not that tough. We know what the problems are, my friends, and we know what the fixes are. We've got to sit down together across the table. It's been done before.

Medicare was “going to be a little tougher,” McCain went on to say. But even he seemed to know, at least this night, that Social Security isn’t “a ticking time bomb.” But then, Brokaw seemed to know it too. Presumably, that’s why he quickly said “and Medicare” when McCain focused first on SS.

Average voters deserve to be told that Social Security is not a “ticking time bomb” that “will soon eat up all of the revenue that's in place.” (Barring economic meltdown.) But it seems to be a law of this tribe—they’re required to cloud this matter. Tim Russert made this his trademark for years. On Tuesday night, Brokaw paid tribute.

But then, Brokaw’s work was woeful throughout. At several points in the primary season, debate moderators were correctly ridiculed for demanding one-word answers. Brokaw seemed to miss that memo. Truly, it takes a very weak mind to ask a question like this:

BROKAW: This requires only a yes or a no. Ronald Reagan famously said that the Soviet Union was the evil empire. Do you think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an evil empire?

It’s especially silly to ask for “a yes or a no” when asking a delicate question like that. Here again, Brokaw’s question was so dumb that McCain swiftly demolished it. Here was the gentleman’s one-word reply—and his 36-word explanation:

MCCAIN: Maybe.


BROKAW: Maybe?

MCCAIN: Depends on how we respond to Russia and depends on a lot of things. If I say yes, then that means that we're reigniting the old Cold War. If I say no, it ignores their behavior.

Duh. But then, many of Brokaw’s questions seemed remarkably light. He closed the evening with what he called a “Zen-like” question from a Granite State viewer. But he’d already authored several Zen-like queries of his own:

BROKAW: Should we fund a Manhattan-like project that develops a nuclear bomb to deal with global energy and alternative energy or should we fund 100,000 garages across America, the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley?

BROKAW: Quick discussion: Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?

How many viewers knew what he meant in contrasting “a Manhattan-like project” with “100,000 garages?” And did it make sense to ask for a “quick discussion” of that latter question? We know what it means to call health care a “right”—but what exactly does it mean to call health care a “responsibility?” Throughout the evening, Obama and McCain fumbled ahead with their sound bites. But in many cases, sound bites were welcome because Brokaw’s questions didn’t make obvious sense.

At one point, Brokaw asked Obama if he was “saying” something—something he clearly hadn’t said. (“Are you saying...that the American economy is going to get much worse before it gets better and they ought to be prepared for that?”) That is exceptionally ham-handed work. But then, it’s hard to get good help these days for the millions NBC has paid Brokaw.
In fairness, Brokaw fumbled throughout with one matter which wasn’t entirely his fault. Throughout the evening, we were puzzled by something he first said before the hopefuls even appeared:

BROKAW: Each candidate will have two minutes to respond to a common question, and there will be a one-minute follow-up. The audience here in the hall has agreed to be polite, and attentive, no cheering or outbursts. Those of you at home, of course, are not so constrained.

Huh? Did that mean that each candidate would get a “one-minute follow-up?” Or did Brokaw mean what he seemed to have said—that there would be a one-minute discussion, with the time to be divided in some unspecified manner? Throughout the evening, Brokaw hectored the candidates about that “one minute,” without quite making the matter clear. Being semi-rational, we assumed that each candidate was supposed to get one minute, and that Brokaw was stating the policy hazily. After all, it makes little sense to set aside one minute for the full discussion. Realistically, the first candidate would consume all the time; the second candidate would get none at all.

But Oh. Our. God. As is clear at the Debate Commission’s web site, this less-than-rational policy had in fact been prescribed. To our ear, Brokaw never made this matter clear—but the nonsensical policy had come down from high. Brokaw was left to annoy the world as he put it into effect.

That said, no one made him mislead on SS—except his allegiance to cohort by-laws. Big scribes are required to misstate this topic. It’s a key point of High Pundit Law.

When Katty met Charlie: Meanwhile, in the official press room, a din was rising among the Big Pundits. After the ball was over, Katty Kay told Charlie Rose all:

KAY (10/7/08): In terms of the level of political dialogue, you know, actually I think it was a fairly serious debate tonight. I judged it—because I was sitting in that huge, big spin-room, media area and after about an hour, the din started to rise, which is a sure sign that people were kind of zoning out of the debate, because it was getting too serious and too wonky and too academic and too policy-orientated. They were all looking for the sparring-fest and the kind of gladiatorial moment that didn’t happen.

So you know, I would give this debate credit for being a good, solid, serious debate.

Too funny. She could tell the debate was solid and serious—because of the din that rose around her as her bored comrades zoned out.

We love it when they cop to their culture! Zingers, gaffes and body language! They comprise the three legs of the stool as our Big Pundits gaze on.

The start of a beautiful friendship: Dummies tend to huddle together, seeking mutual approbation We thought of that basic principle yesterday, after we traced this comment by Josh Marshall:


Couldn’t agree more with my friend Sullivan—the idea that Obama drove McCain to become a lying sleaze by refusing to agree to the 78 townhall debates or whatever it was just doesn't wash.

Awwwww! Like Bogart and Louie, Sully and Josh head off for the sunrise, at the start of a beautiful friendship. In this particular case, of course, they’re agreeing on the most obvious point on God’s earth. If you have IQ points to rub together, you already know that McCain’s claim “just doesn’t wash.” But so what? Josh congratulates his pal for being so wise, so brilliant.

You kiss my keister, I’ll kiss yours! It’s a key part of insider punditry.

For the record, Josh’s pal is Andrew Sullivan, who was screaming for your scalps in the wake of 9/11. And here is the utterly laughable post which Josh seemed to think was so brilliant. In his post, Sully reviews the McCain camp’s explanation for why the campaign took its negative turn. Then, he offers this pitiful thought about McCain’s demise:

SULLIVAN (10/9/08): I don’t buy this any more. I've come to the sad conclusion that McCain's brand was just that. His real core is about power and ambition, divorced, when necessary, from principle or patriotism. You learn who people really are when they are asked to do the right thing when it might hurt them, not when it helps them anyway. We just learned something that has always been true about McCain. It isn’t pretty.

He doesn’t buy this any more! You’d think Sully’s pals would be embarrassed by that. Instead, Josh rushes to praise him.

A question: Was it “pretty,” in Campaign 2000, when McCain paraded about the land, telling one audience after another that he planned to “beat Al Gore like a drum?” That was extremely unusual language for one White House hopeful to aim at another. But it fit the press corps’ mood of the era, and consummate hacks like Sully and Josh had signed on for the full ride.

Indeed, Sully just learned in the past few weeks that Saint John McCain’s brand was BS! And Josh is eager to praise his pal for this inspiring brilliance.

Good God, people! It was always obvious that the Saint McCain construct was a ludicrous press corps invention—as was the construct about Demon Gore. But Marshall and Sullivan kept their traps shut when the future was there on the line. I don’t buy this any more, Sullivan says. Is he more like Bogart’s Louis—or is he Rip Van Winkle?

DUMBING DEMOCRACY WAY, WAY DOWN: In today’s New York Times, David Brooks writes an important piece about the way the conservative/Republican world has dumbed itself down in the past many years. Early on, he describes gruesome recent history:

BROOKS (10/9/08): [O]ver the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.

Indeed, dumbness has become a Republican talisman; you can’t seek the White House without it. We all know how their current nominee brags about graduating fifth from the bottom. But this upside-down thinking takes us back to his economics adviser, Phil Gramm. In 1996, the Post’s George Lardner profiled Gramm, then a White House hopeful:

LARDNER (2/7/96): Phil flunked third grade at Wynnton Elementary School, he loves to tell every audience, as well as the 7th and 9th. "I played hooky a lot," he says...

Mrs. Gramm, now 82 and living alone in Phenix City, Ala., still scolds her son for campaign references to his early failures. "Yes, Momma, I know I have a PhD," aides have heard him tell her, "but I have to tell them I struggled through grade school.”

Gramm “loved to tell every audience” about the way he’d flunked three grades; his dumbness made him a man of the people! Indeed, by the time he finally dropped out of the race, he seemed to be making his tale even better. The former flunkee finished fifth in Iowa—and so, he decided to pull the plug. Ron Hutcheson quoted his explanation in the Ft. Worth Telegram. "I failed the third grade twice,” he now said (our emphasis), “but I know the difference between fifth and first place.”

He knew the difference between fifth and first! Based on his policy work for McCain, this may be his greatest achievement.

Whatever! Brooks describes a type of dumbness that has come to define Republican politics. We’ll only say this: On the liberal web, on liberal TV, some players seem to be working hard to dumb down the liberal/Dem world too. Dumbed-down conservatives have had their talk-radio jocks; we now have our dumb-it-down bloggers. There’s nothing so dumb that they won’t pimp it whole, just as Sean and Rush have long done.

Back in the day, did Sullivan and Marshall fail to see how stupid those tales were about Saint McCain? Did they fail to see how fake those tales were about Gore? Candidate Gramm flunked the third and ninth grades. Our dopes flunked 1999.

(One difference: Ours won’t admit it.)