Hugh Hewitt, one of America’s Most Easily Mocked Pundits™ argues that the first debate of the 2012 GOP primaries should not be moderated by MSM personalities from Politico and NBC, but instead by “different kinds of journalists” like “Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Medved.” Andrew Sullivan quickly moves to mock said member of America’s Most Easily Mocked Pundits™ for this facially absurd suggestion, but the often quick to mock Alex Massie (sorta) leaps to Hewitt’s defense, arguing that Hewitt’s idea actually has some merit to it.
Massie’s right – Hewitt’s suggestion is actually a pretty good one, and uncharacteristically un-mockworthy for a suggestion coming from one of America’s Most Easily Mocked Pundits™. For instance, Hewitt writes:
I still enjoy having Politico’s Mike Allen on my show as a regular guest most Tuesdays, and I read Politico every day. But both outlets are significantly biased to the left….
Okay, so the notion that Politico is “significantly biased to the left” is completely insane and readily mockable, as is the notion advanced by Hewitt that Levin, Limbaugh, and Hannity are in any way, shape, or form “journalists.” So, uhh, mock away on that front.
But Hewitt’s underlying point, stripped of its typically bizarre factual assertions, is actually a pretty good one. As Massie notes:
Andrew complains, hyperbolically to be sure, that this is “like Stalin being grilled by the Politburo”. But actually, I would be interested in watching a Presidential debate moderated by the likes of Limbaugh and Levin and co. Lord knows, there will be plenty of opportunities for Wolf Blitzer and Brian Williams and the rest to ask dumb questions. Why shouldn’t the conservative movement’s own favourites have the chance to do so in a nationally-televised format too?
In fact, a Levin and Limbaugh moderated debate would be more interesting and probably more fun than most such affairs….I’d also like to see a Democratic equivalent. Perhaps with a panel of moderators including Keith Olbermann, Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Michael Moore.
This is exactly right.
Primary campaigns are inherently interfactional wars within political parties and the movements of which they are comprised. Having such debates moderated by journalists with no meaningful stake in those wars does exactly nothing to resolve them and permits candidates – especially top-tier candidates – to get away with strictly delivering the official party line that virtually all of them know by heart without any meaningful challenge. Moreover, the debates fundamentally become focused on things about which the moderators care but few of the people who will actually be voting care. Worst of all, because the moderators have their own set of incentives and interests, they focus almost entirely on the “top-tier candidates,” while basically ignoring candidates they deem to be longshots, helping to ensure that the longshots remain longshots and the top-tier remains the top-tier.
The result is that primary debates tell primary voters precious little about the candidates, while being incredibly boring to boot.
That all changes if the people asking the questions are movement or party die-hards in good standing with a real interest in the outcome. Even better if those people get particular enjoyment out of arguing with those who dare disagree with them.
A moderator who is a movement partisan with a stake in the outcome will make every effort to force the candidates to accentuate their differences, and to do so on issues of actual meaning to the people who will be voting. A fringe candidate who would be more acceptable to the party writ large than the top-tier if only he had bigger donors and greater name recognition will be given ample opportunity to make his case. Similarly, assming the moderator likes to argue, a fringe candidate who is relatively unfriendly to the party’s activist core will have more air time to show that there’s some real substance to his dissent from that core – yes, this air time may be frequently interrupted, but I’m pretty sure Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee, not to mention Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, would have killed for significant amounts of interrupted air time over the pittance of time they were given during the 2008 primary debates.
That’s not to say that the results of those debates would result in greater success for candidates I, personally, might like – in the GOP especially, I suspect that it would result in candidates I find even less appealing. It is, however, to say that the results of those debates would be candidates more likely to have something other than inertia on their side and who more of the people who actually vote in the primaries find appealing or at least relatively representative of their beliefs. More importantly, it would allow primary debates to serve as an actual forum for airing intramovement and intraparty disputes, forcing primary voters to actually think a little bit more about what, exactly, it is that they believe.