There have been a lot of rumblings in the blogosphere about CNN's handling of the Republican YouTube debate this week in Florida. Popular conservative bloggers such as David Limbaugh of Town Hall and Michelle Malkin have excoriated CNN for including the questions they asked and not thoroughly vetting the "undecided voters" who participated in the debate. For example, there are links between the retired Army general who asked if gays should be allowed to openly serve in the military and Hillary Clinton. Also, during the post-debate segment, CNN conducted an interview with a focus group and highlighted an "undecided" voter who was so uninspired by what she had seen that she decided she would vote for Edwards. However, this "undecided" voter really had been an Edwards supporter all along.
To the conservative community, these are two instances show that CNN is biased against conservatives and is an arm of the Clinton political machine, as it is often derided as the "Clinton News Network." I happen to believe that conservatives may have a point when it comes to criticizing CNN's news judgment or the quality of their vetting process, but I also believe that a lot of their complaints is simply partisanship as usual.
To be sure, CNN was remiss in its journalistic responsibilities when they selected the questions that would be asked during the debate. One of the questions that made it on the air was from the Club for Growth's Grover Norqust, so it's reasonable to assume that there were other questions from other voters with political connections. In this age of eagle-eyed and tech savvy bloggers, the author of each video submission should have been subjected to a reasonably rigorous vetting process. It's easy to go to Google and type in a person's name and see what pops up. And if that yields too many search results, add the words "democrat" or "republican" and see if that narrows anything. If nothing obvious pops up, then there's a good chance that the question isn't a "plant." Remember the controversy surrounding CBS's Dan Rather and George Bush's military records? Eagle-eyed bloggers spotted something suspicious about the documents CBS News was basing their story on and did a bit of research on their own. They were able to quickly find out that the "military documents" were bogus, and this led to Dan Rather's demise. So, if a few independent bloggers could be so good at background research, why can't CNN?
Regarding the substance of the questions, the conservative blogosphere is railing against CNN and the "liberal media" for asking questions that paint Republicans in a negative light. They claim that several of the questions asked seemed to be confrontational ones akin to the sort that liberals would pose to them, rather than ones conservatives would pose to other conservatives. These are questions like the ones about gays in the military and the Confederate flag.
Here's why I disagree.
First of all, Republicans cannot complain about being asked these "liberal talking point" questions because several of the questions the Democrats received in the last CNN debates were about issues that are important to conservatives. Does anyone remember the question from the man in Michigan who had a huge shotgun and asked if the Democrats believed he had the right to keep "his baby" to protect himself? Another question came from a man with a guitar singing about how much he hated taxes. Taxes and gun rights are major issues indeed, but they are generally not issues that Democrats tend to focus on. Perhaps Democrats have had so much trouble electorally (at least prior to 2006) because they are not quite as adept at handling these issues as opposed to talking about the environment, education, and poverty.
Similarly, Republicans don't often talk about the role of gays in the military and the Confederate flag. They're happy to talk about "a strong national defense" and "states' rights," but talking about kicking gays out of the military and talking about the Confederate flag at all are much more politically risky. I think it's great that the Republicans had to answer these tough issues because if they don't answer them now, they won't be prepared to answer them in the general election. And for what it's worth, these issues do matter to a lot of voters, including Republicans. South Carolinians are abuzz with chatter about Mitt Romney's comments on the Confederate flag, for example. It even made today's newspaper.
Secondly, these conservatives often ridicule Democrats for not having a debate on the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel. A common attack on Democrats is "How can they stand up to Osama bin Laden and the terrorists if they can't even stand up to Fox News?" So, to use their same criticism, how can these Republicans not be rattled by Iran and North Korea if they are so easily rattled by CNN?
Politics is not beanbag. People running for office and even current office-holders often have to enter hostile environments and field tough questions from abrasive people. Mitt Romney has had to deal with people refusing to shake his hand because of his religion. Condoleeza Rice has endured protests from antiwar voters during congressional hearings. Hillary Clinton has had to remain calm while members of some of her audiences accuse her of being selfish and driven by her own lust for power. And of course, John Kerry could only watch as one particularly stubborn student was tased by the University of Florida Police. And what about Bill Clinton cutting down Fox News' Chris Wallace in an interview last fall for what he thought were unfairly tough questions? And every Sunday, politicians hit the airwaves to be grilled on shows like "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation," "Late Edition," "Fox News Sunday," and "This Week." That's why politicians have to be thick-skinned. That's why politicians have to be skilled at maintaining their composure. That's why politicians have to be prepared to talk about almost anything at anytime. That's why politicians have advisors and consultants and press secretaries. If these politicians think the questions are too tough, they should enter another line of work.
There is one question, however, that conservatives might have found okay that actually made me a bit uncomfortable. It was the question about what the Bible meant and how much of the Bible each candidate believed. This question tripped up Romney and was deftly fielded by Huckabee, but I don't think this question should have even been included at all.
Since when did one's interpretation of the Bible determine one's suitability for elective office? This is a very dangerous question that undermines what we are supposedly fighting against in Iraq and Afghanistan. I, for one, believe religion should be a private matter. But I'm not naive enough to believe that politicians should never discuss their faith at all. But what if a non-Christian or an athiest were running for president as a Republican? That candidate would have been at an inherent disadvantage because he would not be able to answer that question "correctly." And how can anyone give an answer about one's interpretation of the Bible that is more "correct" than another person's interpretation?
Consider Article VI of the Constitution (emphasis added):
"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."Asking about one's interpretation of a religious text like the Bible comes awfully close to violating this. I can only wonder if political observers abroad (especially Muslims) are wondering about our nation's hypocrisy when it comes to religious tolerance in light of this question. I really wish Ron Paul had the chance to respond to this at the debate. That this question wasn't posed to him was a travesty in that there was a great opportunity to really get voters to actually think critically about the role of religion in our politics.
Let's hope that Anderson Cooper and the CNN political team do a better job of tightening things up in the future. In the meantime, conservative bloggers ought not protest so much about this because it's happened before and it will happen again. It's called politics.