Jonathan Tobin grades Wednesday’s NBC Commander-in-Chief Forum:
Last night’s preview of the first presidential debate at the military forum held in New York confirmed what many, if not most Americans think about the two leading candidates. In just an hour’s worth of gobsmacking political television, both made statements that were disqualifying. Clinton embroidered upon her previous lies about her email scandal and Trump dumped on the U.S. military while giving yet another endorsement to Vladimir Putin. But if voters woke up today scratching their heads about their dismal choice, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, the man even some otherwise sensible people are demanding to have included in the debates, went on television to demonstrate that he is as bad, if not worse, than either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
The NBC forum is being perceived in some quarters as a victory for Trump because of the pasting Clinton took from both moderator Matt Lauer and audience members who asked about her email scandal. Liberals think this is all very unfair since it allowed Clinton to spend less time demonstrating that she is more knowledgeable than Trump. But Clinton’s continued denials that she knowingly sent classified material on her insecure home server are outrageous. Yet not quite as outrageous as her claim that her server was actually more secure than well-protected systems operated by the government. You can’t admit responsibility for what you say was a mistake and in the next breath claim to have done nothing wrong if you want to retain a shred of credibility. Her sense of entitlement about breaking the rules and cavalier attitude toward the truth make for a depressing spectacle. And its because of that combination that Americans don’t trust her.
Clinton’s answers about foreign and security policy — where she has an advantage over Trump — weren’t much better. Trying to be both a responsible internationalist and an antiwar leftist is an impossible task and Clinton failed miserably. You can’t promise to beat ISIS while at the same time vowing never to commit American ground troops to the fight and still sound like you’re the serious person you claim to be.
That Lauer and the audience easily cornered Clinton speaks to her weakness as a politician. That the Today Show host had less success holding Trump accountable for the string of outrageous and false statements that poured forth from his mouth during his half hour speaks to his strength as a media personality. It may also be, as we saw during the Republican primary debates, that the sheer magnitude of his falsehoods is such that it defeats the ability of ordinary people to cope with them.
Suffice it to say that for an American presidential candidate to praise Vladimir Putin and prefer him to our own president is, by itself, disqualifying. The Obama presidency deserves harsh criticism, but anyone who sees the Russian dictator as a role model is simply running for president in the wrong country. That also applies to Trump’s trashing of our military, hostility to the presence of women in the armed forces, and clear desire for only those generals who will tell him what he wants to hear. Does anyone really believe he has a “secret plan” to defeat ISIS? Even if he does, what are we to make of a man who vows he won’t send troops to Iraq or engage in regime change but then says he also intends to steal oil from that country and Libya, a colonial quagmire project that would make George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq look like an act of strategic genius.
This morning, however, Gary Johnson exceeded Trump and Clinton in the contest to determine which candidate was the most unqualified to be commander-in-chief. On the “Morning Joe” program, Mike Barnicle asked Johnson what he would do about the situation in Aleppo. Johnson replied, “What is Aleppo?” Barnicle responded, “You’re kidding,” to which Johnson simply said, “No,” with a deer-in-the-headlights look.
Later Johnson issued a statement claiming that he was actually aware of the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria that centers on the siege of Aleppo and apologized for the gaffe. But coming from the same man who claimed at the Libertarian Party convention that he wasn’t sure whether U.S. involvement in World War Two was justified, this stunning moment of ignorance ought to eliminate him from consideration for those voters desperate for an alternative to Trump and Clinton.
Americans will have two more months to hear more from the candidates. But no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, honest observers must admit that within a span of 12 hours, Clinton, Trump, and Johnson have all proved again why none of them should be president.
Clinton supporters’ position on this has been to attack the messenger, as James Taranto reports:
With Donald Trump gaining ground in the polls, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has begun a series of attacks—on Matt Lauer. We kid you not: Subscribers to Mrs. Clinton’s email solicitations (we read them so you don’t have to) received two missives Thursday with Lauer’s name as the subject line.
“Last night, during the Commander-in-Chief Forum on live national television, Donald Trump kicked off his evening by lying to the American people about his position on the Iraq War—and no one stopped to call him on it,” read the first email, signed by deputy communications director Christina Reynolds. “Not only did the moderator, Matt Lauer, fail to fact-check Trump—he then kept the conversation moving.”
The second email, also attributed to Reynolds, begins: “I wanted to share this important column from Jonathan Chait I read last night.” Underneath is an image of the headline of Chait’s column, “Matt Lauer’s Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I’ve Seen in This Campaign.”
Reynolds breaks her promise and doesn’t actually share the column; she quotes a mere sentence of it. The headline image is hyperlinked to a donation page on the campaign website, not to New York magazine. (Out of professional courtesy, here is a link to Chait’s piece, which we discussed yesterday.)
Fascinating, isn’t it? It’s far from unprecedented for candidates for national office to campaign against the media: Spiro Agnew did it, and so has Trump. President Obama has been known to disparage Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. But usually it’s Republicans vs. the liberal mainstream media or Democrats vs. the conservative alternative media. Trump’s feud with Fox’s Megyn Kelly last year broke the pattern, and now Mrs. Clinton is following Trump’s lead in attacking a journalist on what is understood to be her own side.
Of course the postwar mainstream media’s conceit—mirrored in Fox’s slogan “fair and balanced”—is that journalists don’t take sides, or at least strive for objectivity. This year, that ideal has come under direct attack as never before. Inspired by Donald Trump, liberal journalists are demanding that other liberal journalists choose liberalism over journalism.
On Twitter, BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski reports “basically universal condemnation from journalists for Lauer letting Trump get away with Iraq War comments.” That’s hyperbolic—Kaczynski’s evidence consists of four tweets—but the condemnation is widespread. David “Iowahawk” Burge quips: “I expect campaigns to ‘work the refs.’ What’s weird is watching the refs work the refs.”
A Washington Post editorial today laments that, as the headline puts it, “The Hillary Clinton Email Story Is Out of Control,” though the editors never specify who they think should control it. “Ms. Clinton’s emails have endured much more scrutiny than an ordinary person’s would have,” they shrug, and besides, “there is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.” The paper that has dined out for decades on its aggressive Watergate coverage is now pro-coverup.
Meanwhile, Mediaite reports that “for the second time in three months, The New York Times sent a memo to reporters reminding them not to editorialize” on social media “about sensitive political issues.” The Times itself has openly editorialized on the front page twice of late—once in an unsigned editorial about gun control, and once, as Mediaite notes, in a column by Jim Rutenberg, ironically arguing that the media can’t afford to be objective lest they help elect Trump. That suggests discord within the Times about the question of whether to junk old-fashioned standards of fairness for the sake of all-out war against Trump (or against guns).
The pressure for journalists to take sides is focusing on the journalistic role most akin to that of referee: debate moderator. Supporters of Mrs. Clinton, both in and out of the media, are demanding that moderators act as “fact-checkers.” As the Times puts it in an editorial today:
If the moderators of the coming debates do not figure out a better way to get the candidates to speak accurately about their records and policies—especially Mr. Trump, who seems to feel he can skate by unchallenged with his own version of reality while Mrs. Clinton is grilled and entangled in the fine points of domestic and foreign policy—then they will have done the country a grave disservice.
That “especially Mr. Trump” is rich given that the editorial goes on to criticize Lauer for “interrogating Mrs. Clinton about her use of a personal email server while secretary of state.”
We don’t envy Lester Holt and the other moderators. Conservatives still haven’t forgiven Candy Crowley for that one time she intervened to help Obama in a 2012 debate with Mitt Romney. If Holt & Co. don’t adopt a hostile attitude toward Trump, they’ll probably losefriends.
And adopting a hostile attitude won’t be enough. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters want the moderators to destroy Trump. If he gets the better of a hostile exchange—as he did with Megyn Kelly last year—the moderators will take the brunt from their liberal peers and friends. If Trump wins the election, Holt may face being vilified for the rest of his life.
The Chicago Tribune quotes an old-timer with an old-school view of the moderator’s role:
“I don’t think fact-checking is the function of the moderator,” said Jim Lehrer, who moderated every first presidential debate of the general election campaign between 1988 and 2012. “It is the moderator’s job to make sure the candidate has the opportunity to do the fact-checking. It’s a subtle difference. If the moderator fact-checked all the time, you’d never get through it.”
Lehrer gets at an important and frequently overlooked point. Even if the moderators play it straight, Trump will have an antagonist in the debates: Hillary Clinton. Implicit in the demand that moderators favor Mrs. Clinton is the fear that she is not up to the task of taking on Trump herself. That’s what you get when you choose a nominee based on family connections and spare her the tough primary campaign that might have exposed her lack of political talent.
And all this was before what happened Sunday to make you think Hillary is not up to the task of being president.