One Debate Too Many

Updated

“ABC should be shut down and never allowed to run a news program again…cartoons only!”

That comment was one of more dignified of the more than 4,000 entries that showed up on ABC News’ Website during and following their coverage of the Democratic presidential debate from Philadelphia, billed as no less than Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama.

But it was instead an overdose of all of the mini-scandals that have transpired since the last debate, and while some merited genuine attention and answers from the candidates, by the time it came to Obama’s lapel pins, it was clear that it was just a bit too much.

As bloggers — many of them pro-Obama — pointed out, it took more than 45 minutes for any policy question to be asked, and an hour for a question to come about the economy. By the time that George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson got to gas prices, they were racing to finish.

Once again, issues like the environment and defense spending were ignored, but you can’t really blame the network for shunning world affairs for the Weather Underground. Political debates are the only new offerings that have worked for the networks this season, with the caveat that each session needs a fresh shot in the arm.

The problem was, neither candidate looked fresh or refreshed. “I have a lot of baggage and everyone has rummaged through it for many years,” Hillary Clinton said at one point, in an effort to point out to superdelegates just how vetted she is. She perhaps proved her point when Obama looked through her stuff and dug out her infamous “baking cookies” comment  —  as a sign of her elitism.

But Obama fared worse that Clinton. When he was not fending off a brutal first 45 minutes, answering questions about his “bitter” remarks, whether he’s more patriotic than Rev. Wright and over past statements by Bill Ayers. He was stumbling through lines from his stump speeches. His answer on affirmative action was impossible to decipher. In short, he looked tired, almost enough to start recalling sniper fire.

There were interesting moments — like how the candidates answered a question on gun control. Yet it was a debate whose agenda wasn’t defined by either one of them, or any Democrat, but by John McCain and the Republicans. “There is no doubt that the Republicans will attack either of us,” Obama said. Staying on defense is not exactly pushing forward your party’s agenda.

At one point, some boos could be heard in the audience, but they were not directed at either of the candidates but the moderators. They may have overplayed their hand, in a format that has been long on gimmicks and sometimes short on substance.  That, however, assumes they have willing participants in a show that demands a command performance.

Other react: Washington Post’s Tom Shales: “The Clear Loser is ABC.”

New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley: “Amity Drains Out.”

Time’s Michael Grunwald:  “The Dems Play Trivial Pursuit.”

The Atlantic’s James Fallows: “Maybe the RNC and the DNC can join hands in freeing political debate from the destructive grip of the networks. And if they can’t do that, maybe we should just go all the way and have the candidates compete eating pails full of maggots on Fear Factor. That’s the logical extension of where we’re headed.”

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