11 January 2000
Our current howler (part II): Move along; nothing to look at
Synopsis: Tim Russert asked about Bushs tax record. The answer? We still havent heard.
Commentary by Tim Russert, Governor George Bush
GOP Candidate Forum, MSNBC, 1/10/00
Question: Where in the world does a voter go if he wants a
little information? We don't recommend the celebrity press corps,
which is reflexively information-averse. In our last two HOWLERS,
we've revisited the Great Groaning Fiscal Debate, in which the
celebrity press corps refuses to describe the actual state of
current budget projections (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/6/00 and 1/10/00).
Hopefuls can spend the "surplus" any way that they want,
because polite reporters won't report that the "surplus"
is actually bogus. The press corps refuses to play an active role
in shaping a rational discourse.
Nor do most voters have the slightest idea about the merits
of the Bradley health plan. Ten weeks after Vice President Gore
challenged the plan at the Hanover debate, it is still impossible
for a vigilant voter to evaluate Gore's representations. Could
a Medicaid recipient get decent health care for Bradley's $1800
"weighted average?" It's virtually impossible for a
voter to say, because the press corps has simply refused to report
on this seminal proposal by Bradley (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/23/99;
see tomorrow's DAILY HOWLER). Meanwhile, every time the two Dem
hopefuls raise the issue in debate, celebrity moderators shoo
the vagrants along, making the windy White House wannabes move
on to other topics (see tomorrow's DAILY HOWLER).
Indeed, if there is one quality network moderators have put
on display all throughout the candidate forums, it is a studied
aversion to extended debatea distaste for developed information.
To all appearances, the moderators exist to make sure no information
could ever emerge from these sessions. This tendency was on display
again last night, as the GOP hopefuls debated in Michigan. Voters
who were curious about hopefuls' views on taxes were sorely frustrated
early on in the going, as the latest edition of Short Attention
Span Theater emerged on the GOP stage.
Entering the forum, there was news from the frontCandidate
Forbes was airing ads attacking Bush's tax record in Texas. Indeed,
the very first question of the night concerned this long-awaited
TIM RUSSERT: The first question is for Governor Bush. Governor
Bush, Steve Forbes has an ad running on television right now which
says the following: "There's something you need to know about
George W. Bush. In 1994, he signed a pledge with my organization
that he would not support sales tax or business tax increases.
In 1997 he broke his pledge. He proposed, proposed an increase
in the business tax and the sales tax"Is that in fact an
Failing to answer the actual question, Bush laid out his reply:
BUSH: What is accurate is I led my state in 1997 to the largest
tax increase in Texas history. The truth is that I laid out a
plan that cut a billion dollars of property taxes...
Bush went on to recite the percentage of the vote that he got
from different groups in his 1998 re-election, but he never stated
what sorts of tax increases he had actually proposed.
Would primary voters want to know this sort of thing? Tax matters
have dominated GOP debate for at least the last twenty years.
The question of Bush record was important enough to be the subject
of the debate's opening question; and it soon became clear that
every candidate wanted to weigh in on the subject of taxes.
But a gnat-like attention span has routinely prevailed at both
parties' candidate forums this year, and that would again turn
out to be true at last night's GOP session. Next in turn, John
McCain was asked a question about his criticism of Bush's current
tax proposalbut then the discussion was pushed ahead to a bewildering
array of minor topics. Incredibly, just fifteen minutes into the
forum, Governor Bush was being asked to opine on the punishment
given to naughty Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rockera matter which
had no conceivable relation to his proposals or preparation to
be president. Meanwhile, other candidates had delivered split-screen
answers, forcing comments on tax matters into their answers on
other subjects. A crazy-quilt pattern took over the debate, as
hopefuls dealt with a bewildering array of unrelated questions
We couldn't help marveling at the moderators' aversion to extended
debate of central issues. Admittedly, it isn't easy to shape a
forum in which six different hopefuls receive equal time. But
it's incredible that the moderators couldn't devote at least one
round of questions to federal tax policy. If you wanted to see
Russert's first question answered, you might as well have been
visiting Mars; in a ninety-minute forum, no effort was made to
get an answer to that first central question. In a rebuttal to
Bush's first answer, Forbes asserted that the Texas GOP had thrown
out Bush's proposed tax plan, replacing it with a plan that was
better. They had saved Bush from his bad plan, he asserted several
times in the evening. Is that true? Here at THE HOWLER, we have
no idea, becausehaving asked the initial questionRussert didn't
think the facts mattered enough to push through to some kind of
All throughout the candidate forums, our analysts have marveled
at the pace of debateat the moderators' instinct to move things
along before central questions get answered. Tomorrow, we'll look
at this nagging syndrome as it's appeared in some recent Dem debates.
Why even bother bringing up central questions if we can't take
the time to attempt to get answers? Before last evening's forum
was done, Bush had been asked what to do with naughty pitchers,
and he had also been asked an irrelevant question about whether
state police forces should engage in racial profiling. The panel's
failure to stay on point was profoundly frustrating in last evening's
forum. But it reflected a tendency we've seen on display all through
this year's hopeful forums.
Hopeless: We've been disappointed in the performances
of network moderators at the candidate forums. But local journalists
selected to round out the panels have been woeful in the past
several weeks. Last week, Jenny Attiyeh of New Hampshire Public
Television was overtly rude to Senator McCain, sarcastically accusing
him of dodging a question he had quite plainly answered. ("For
someone who rides the Straight Talk Express, that wasn't the most
forthcoming of answers," she scolded. Her rudeness was matched
by her incomprehension; McCain plainly had answered her question.)
Last night, one local moderator made a crack about Ronald Reagan
that surely drove GOP viewers up the wall, and the other local
scribe, discussing the irrelevant Rocker matter, asked this of
a puzzled Bush:
MODERATOR: A Harvard professor today came out with...this Harvard
professor came out todayPaul Weyrer, I believe is the way you
pronounce his nameand he said freedom of speech does not apply
in the private sector. If [Rocker] had been playing for a state
university and he had said that, then his right would have been
protected. Do you agree with that?
There's an obvious reason why most local anchors sit around
reading copy about shootings and fires. This local moderator was
involved for PR reasons last night. The public deserves much
As the humorists might explain it: Watching the hapless
local anchors bumble their way through last night's debate, we
couldn't help thinking of a hoary old joke about Moses playing
golf up in heaven. Moses is rounding out a celestial foursome
with the three persons of the trinity. Each of his three partners,
on the first hole, tee off with astounding trick-shot holes-in-one.
"Are we here to play golf, or are we just gonna f*&#
around," was the question of the frustrated mortal.
What is the purpose of these candidate forums? If we are going
to take these forums seriously, it's time to forget about local
PR and get rid of the hapless local anchors. Or are we really
just f*&#ing around?