By FRANK RICH
“THE crowd is turning on me,” said Charles Gibson, the ABC anchor, when the audience jeered him in the final moments of Wednesday night’s face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I can’t remember a debate in which the only memorable moment was the audience’s heckling of a moderator. Then again, I can’t remember a debate that became such an instant national gag, earning reviews more appropriate to a slasher movie like “Prom Night” than a civic event held in Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center:
“Shoddy, despicable!” — The Washington Post
“A tawdry affair!” — The Boston Globe
“A televised train wreck!” — The Philadelphia Daily News
And those were the polite ones. Let’s not even go to the blogosphere.
Of course, Obama fans were angry because of the barrage of McCarthyesque guilt-by-association charges against their candidate, portraying him as a fellow traveler of bomb-throwing, America-hating, flag-denigrating terrorists. The debate’s co-moderator, George Stephanopoulos, second to no journalist in his firsthand knowledge of the Clinton White House, could have easily rectified the imbalance. All he had to do was draw on his expertise to ask similar questions about Bill Clinton’s check-bearing business and foundation associates circling a potential new Clinton administration. He did not.
But viewers of all political persuasions were affronted by the moderators’ failure to ask about the mortgage crisis, health care, the environment, torture, education, China policy, the pending G.I. bill to aid veterans, or the war we’re losing in Afghanistan. Those minutes were devoted not just to recycling the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bosnian sniper fire and another lame question about a possible “dream ticket” but to the unseemly number of intrusive commercials and network promos that prompted the jeering at the end. The trashiest ads often bumped directly into an ABC announcer’s periodic recitations of quotations from the Constitution. Such defacing of American values is to be expected, I guess, from a network whose debate moderators refuse to wear flag pins.
Ludicrous as the whole spectacle was, ABC would not have been so widely pilloried had it not tapped into a larger national discontent with news media fatuousness. The debate didn’t happen in a vacuum; it was the culmination of the orgy of press hysteria over Mr. Obama’s remarks about “bitter” small-town voters. For nearly a week, you couldn’t change channels without hearing how Mr. Obama had destroyed his campaign with this single slip at a San Francisco fund-raiser. By Wednesday night, the public was overdosing.
Mr. Obama did sound condescending, an unappealing trait that was even more naked in his “You’re likable enough, Hillary” gibe many debates ago. But the overreaction to this latest gaffe backfired on the media more than it damaged him. For all the racket about “Bittergate” — and breathless intimations of imminent poll swings and superdelegate stampedes — the earth did not move. The polls hardly budged, and superdelegates continued to migrate mainly in Mr. Obama’s direction.
Thus did another overhyped 2008 story line go embarrassingly bust, like such predecessors as the death of the John McCain campaign and the organizational and financial invincibility of the Clinton political machine against a rookie senator from Illinois. Not the least of the reasons that the Beltway has gotten so much wrong this year is that it believes that 2008 is still 1988. It sees the country in its own image — static — instead of as a dynamic society whose culture and demographics are changing by the day.
In this one-size-fits-all analysis, Mr. Obama must be the new Dukakis, sure to be rejected by white guys easily manipulated by Lee Atwater-style campaigns exploiting race and class. But some voters who lived through 1988 have changed, and quite a few others are dead. In 2008, they are supplanted in part by an energized African-American electorate and the young voters of all economic strata who fueled the Obama movement that many pundits didn’t take seriously before Iowa. And that some still don’t. Cokie Roberts of ABC predicted in February that young voters probably won’t show up in November because “they never have before” and “they’ll be tired.”
However out of touch Mr. Obama is with “ordinary Americans,” many Americans, ordinary and not, have concluded that the talking heads blathering about blue-collar men, religion, guns and those incomprehensible “YouTube young people” are even more condescending and out of touch. When a Washington doyenne like Mary Matalin, freighted with jewelry, starts railing about elitists on “Meet the Press,” as she did last Sunday, it’s pure farce. It’s typical of the syndrome that the man who plays a raging populist on CNN, Lou Dobbs, dismissed Mr. Obama last week by saying “we don’t need another Ivy League-educated knucklehead.” Mr. Dobbs must know whereof he speaks, since he’s Harvard ’67.
The most revealing moment in Wednesday’s debate was a striking example of this media-populace disconnect. In Mr. Gibson’s only passionate query of the night, he tried to strong-arm both Democrats into forgoing any increases in the capital gains tax. The capital gains tax! That’s just the priority Americans are focusing on as they lose their houses and jobs, and as gas prices reach $4 a gallon (a subject that merited only a brief mention, in a lightning round of final questions). And this in a debate that took place on the same day we learned that the top 50 hedge fund managers made a total of $29 billion in 2007, some of them by betting against the mortgage market.
At least Mr. Gibson is consistent. In the ABC debate in January, he upbraided Mrs. Clinton by suggesting that a typical New Hampshire “family of two professors” with a joint income “in the $200,000 category” would be unjustly penalized by her plan to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. He seemed oblivious not merely to typical academic salaries but to the fact that his hypothetical household would be among America’s wealthiest (only 3.4 percent earn more).
Next to such knuckleheaded obtuseness, Mr. Obama’s pratfall may strike many voters as a misdemeanor. He was probably rescued as well by the typical Clinton campaign overkill that followed his mistake. Not content merely to piously feign shock about Mr. Obama’s San Francisco soliloquy (and the operative political buzzword here is San Francisco, which stands for you-know-what), Mrs. Clinton couldn’t resist presenting herself as an unambiguously macho, beer-swilling hunting enthusiast. This is as condescending as it gets, topping even Mitt Romney’s last-ditch effort to repackage himself to laid-off union workers as the love child of Joe Hill and Norma Rae.
The video of Mrs. Clinton knocking back drinks in an Indiana bar drowned out the scratchy audio of Mr. Obama’s wispy words in San Francisco. Her campaign didn’t seem to recognize that among the many consequences of the Bush backlash is a revulsion against such play acting. Americans belatedly learned the hard way that the brush-clearing cowboy of the Crawford “ranch” (it’s a country house, not a working ranch) was in reality an entitled Andover-Yale-Harvard oil brat whose arrogance has left us where we are now. Voters don’t want a rerun from a Wellesley-Yale alumna who served on the board of Wal-Mart.
Privileged though they are, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama do want to shape policy to help the less well-heeled. Mr. McCain, who had a far more elite upbringing than either of them and whose wife’s estimated fortune exceeds the Clintons’, is not just condescending to working Americans but trying to hoodwink them. Next week, in a replay of the 2000 Bush campaign’s “compassionate conservative” photo ops among black schoolchildren, he will show he’s a “different kind of Republican” by visiting what he calls the “forgotten” America of Alabama’s “black belt” and the old steel town of Youngstown, Ohio. What he wants voters to forget is the inequity of his new economic plan.
That plan’s incoherent smorgasbord of items includes a cut from 35 percent to 25 percent in the corporate tax rate. For noncorporate taxpayers, Mr. McCain offers such thin gruel as a battle against federal pork (the notorious Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” earmarked for $223 million in federal highway money, costs less than a day of the war in Iraq) and a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax (a saving of some $2.75 per 15-gallon tank). Now there’s a reason for voters to be bitter — assuming bloviators start publicizing and parsing Mr. McCain’s words as relentlessly as they do the Democrats’.
That may be a big assumption. At an Associated Press luncheon for newspaper editors in Washington last week, Mr. McCain was given a standing ovation. (The other candidate who appeared, Mr. Obama, was not.) Cindy McCain, whose tax returns remain under wraps, has not received remotely the same scrutiny as Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, except for her plagiarized recipes. The most damning proof of the press’s tilt toward Mr. McCain, though, is the lack of clamor for his complete health records, especially in the wake of his baffling serial factual confusions about Iraq, his No. 1 issue.
But that remains on hold while we resolve whether Mr. Obama lost Wednesday’s debate with his defensive stumbling, or whether Mrs. Clinton lost it with her ceaseless parroting of right-wing attacks. The unequivocally good news is that ABC’s debacle had the largest audience of any debate in this campaign. That’s a lot of viewers who are now mad as hell and won’t take it anymore.