After watching last night's insipid debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (see transcript here), I've decided that, yes, the media really IS helping Obama.
Just not in the way Clinton supporters think.
Predictably, moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson focused on such gripping issues as whether Obama was sorry for suggesting Pennsylvanians were "bitter," and whether anyone could trust Clinton after her Bosnia sniper story proved false. So far, reporters seem more consumed with this stuff than anyone else, but they keep pushing it anyway -- all while asking whether the candidates are "out of touch."
But either way, I think these questions help Obama -- even when they are directed squarely at him.
Let's take a look at this exchange from last night, which followed Clinton being grilled about "Snipergate":
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, your campaign has sent out a cascade of e-mails just about every day, questioning Senator Clinton's credibility.... Do you believe that Senator Clinton has been fully truthful about her past?
OBAMA: Well, look, I think that Senator Clinton has a strong record to run on. She wouldn't be here if she didn't.
And, you know, I haven't commented on the issue of Bosnia. You know, I ...
STEPHANOPOULOS: Your campaign has.
OBAMA: Of course. But the -- because we're asked about it.
From there, Obama urged that we not get "obsessed with gaffes" and instead deal with real substance.
Sadly, there isn't much truth to Obama's pose of becoming reluctance. I certainly never asked about Clinton's Bosnia remarks, and yet the Obama campaign sent me an e-mail about it anyway. It began thusly:
"The Clinton campaign claimed today that Senator Clinton 'misspoke' when she described a supposedly harrowing landing in Tuzla, Bosnia as First Lady in 1996 -- despite the fact that the claim appeared in her prepared remarks. The Tuzla story, now thoroughly debunked, joins a growing list of instances in which Senator Clinton has exaggerated her role in foreign and domestic policymaking."
This isn't how a candidate reluctantly answers a question; it's how he eagerly tries to raise one.
But I'm not saying that Obama bullshits to score political points. I'm saying that Obama takes the bullshit to a higher level ... and that in this campaign, the media's focus on bullshit issues makes it easier.
Much of Obama's appeal, after all, is his pledge to transcend politics-as-usual. He talks a lot about unifying red states and blue, rejecting partisan distinctions, and so on. Frankly, I find a lot of that rhetoric naive and even somewhat disingenuous. But at least one thing really does unite us: Just about everyone hates the media, and at least claims to despise its focus on "gotcha" moments rather than issues of substance.
One legacy of the Clinton years, in fact, is that many liberals now hate the media as much as conservatives always have. And there's good reason for that resentment, as the inane performance of Gibson and Stephanopoulos last night demonstrates.
Still, as shoddy as the moderating was, I think it helped Obama ... because Obama does a better job than Clinton of rising above the attacks everyone professes to hate.
Clinton too objects to sniping (sorry) press coverage ... but her complaints always make you think she just wants reporters to pick on her rivals. She doesn't seem to mind the style of the attacks; she just wants someone else to be the target.
Compare, for example, the following passage to the one quoted above. The moderators had just grilled Obama on -- surprise! -- the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's bombastic sermons. After Obama addressed the topic for the thousandth time, Gibson gave Clinton a change to change the subject. Predictably, she declined.
GIBSON: I'm getting a little out of balance here. Do you want to take a few seconds or do you want to go to the next question?
CLINTON: I think in addition to the questions about Reverend Wright and what he said and when he said it, and for whatever reason he might have said these things, there were so many different variations on the explanations that we heard.
And it is something that I think deserves further exploration ...
And so on. Instead of taking the high ground, she insisted that "further exploration" should be given to a topic everyone is already sick of.
Politicians have always complained about media coverage, and Clinton does it as much as anyone. And yet there is actually a kind of sympathy between Clinton and the press. Both are treating this 2008 campaign like it was 1996. The Clintons may have lamented the "politics of personal destruction" back then, but it's pretty clear they still think it's a viable tactic now. Like generals in the Pentagon, they are still fighting the last war.
And too often, that's all our played-out national media is capable of. Of the people in the spotlight last evening, only Obama seems to realize how weary people are of the media's role in facilitating a bankrupt politics. Which is why he repeatedly denounced "the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with."
The media's "gotcha" games are part of what he is running against. Gibson and Stephanopoulos may have thought they were giving Obama a hard time last night, but they just ended up acting as foils for Obama's claims of political virtue.
Of course, Obama may be a hypocrite -- denouncing such attacks in person while pouncing on them in campaign e-mails. But if he's hypocritical about the politics he claims to want, I'm not sure he's alone.