The YouTube Debate: Critiquing Conservatives' Criticisms

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.

4 comment(s):

Nikki said...

Hey Anthony......I think media entertainment type conservatives are embarrassing. I have never liked sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Ann coulter etc Sean is a tagline wizard and Rush is deranged. And of course Ann I don't even know what to say about her. Michelle Malkin puts me to sleep and is so elitist. I hate belly aching in general!!
I think your "Bible" stance is a good point, however I admit I feel more comfortable with a religious person in office. But as far as the confederate flag is concerned I can't find it in me to care......My politics though they are conservative are based more on what I feel is a happy medium. I like democrats locally and republicans federally. AZ has a dem governor and I liked her A LOT!! I voted for her and got a lot of flack as a precinct commitee chair, but NO ONE tells me how to vote. You asked before why I stand behind Bush and without filling up your comment page, and I will try to blog about it one of these days. LDS people are taught to be self sufficient. The reason I bring this up is because I think people like to blame government for every problem and then ask them to stay out of their lives. We can't have it both ways. Bush blamers will always expect far too much from their government officials and I expect very little. I think self-sufficiancy enstills an attitude toward government that it is not there to solve our problems but to defend us and enforce laws etc. I don't blame the goverment for any of my problems and that included Bill Clinton. I recognize his family medical leave benefiting me and see things for what they are not through a glass darkly. I think people hate government in general right now and to me I expect nothing more from the government than security, road building, etc. I can take care of myself. This is my culture and also my upbringing. I don't think Bush is poll driven. I admire his tenacity. I think there is deranged Bush hatred and a lot of conservatives have bought into it. Especially about Iraq. He has never once blamed the military for the failings in Iraq, he has born the brunt of the criticism and without whining. He has given more to AIDS in Africa than any other President and gets no credit. He has spent more on education and is called an out of control spender by donkeys and elephants. Deficit spending is debatable in times of recession...you have to do it. I think the Jury is still out on Iraq. I think we will be glad to have a buffer there to deal with Iran........truly I could go on and I am going to stop. I think he has had to deal with the toughest problems of our time and it is a thankless job. who would want it. there is a taste of where I stand......your write up on whining elephants was great. I hope you know I was just kidding about the length........my comments aren't that short!!haha

Anthony Palmer said...


Is it okay to ask these kinds of religious questions just because most Americans are "comfortable," seeing that they are Christians? Would you be as "comfortable" if the question was about how you viewed the Torah or the Koran? I bet there would be screams from the audience and the media and pundits about "why they had to answer such a question."

This illustrates the divide between the religiously devout and secularists. Your pragmatics fall into both categories. I don't think secularists are necessarily hostile towards religion, although those on the other side often complain about them "wanting to take God out of our schools, etc." Pragmatists probably believe religion is fine as long as it's kept private. That's the camp I fall into. One's faith is not really important to me, even as it pertains to the president. I can get my spiritual guidance elsewhere.

It would seem to me that the true test should not be what is "comfortable" because it's about a subject on which the majority of people agree, but rather is it a constitutionally and politically fair question. To me, asking about how one interprets the Bible is neither fair nor relevant. It's wedge politics.

Silence Dogood said...

Whether some one is more comfortable with a person on faith is not really answered by this question - most American's probably do want a person of faith to be President, however, I agree this question was Totally inappropriate. If Lieberman, who was on the Democrats Ticket in 2004 was asked about his interpretation of the Bible - would he remind the audience that it stopped short at the New Testament, would be be embarrassed, would be booed
WOULD IT CONCEIVABLY HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH HIS ABILITY TO GOVERN? Unless the next coming came on his watch - unlikely.

The question was completely catered to the fact that much of the Republican electorate (I don't know the actual percentage) but double digits, happen to be evangelical Christians, but frankly the only way they could have been more inappropriate here would have been to just directly ask each candidate when they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? I am not sure if there would have been a big difference (it is completely a litmus test that should not be part of the process and CNN was very imprudent to help in foisting this religious test question on into the process).

oso diablo said...

i have a slightly different take on the Bible question. i thought it was asked as an attempted gotcha by someone who would advocate what's been called a "naked public square". I could be wrong, but that's the vibe i got.

As for the Constitution, Article VI prohibits the government from using a religious test for a public office. It doesn't prohibit a voter from using whatever criteria he/she prefers to choose a candidate.

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