Part 1—You’ve seen last night’s movie before: Let’s start with a word about the candidates, although politicians aren’t our focus here.
Last evening’s debate was a massacre. The massacre was so complete that it was widely acknowledged by MSNBC’s pundits.
Candidate Romney was on the attack; he had a theme and a focus. Candidate Obama had little focus or framework for his evening—virtually none at all.
He started with a jumbled complaint about Romney’s tax proposal. But he seemed surprised by Romney’s (wholly predictable) reaction, then utterly faded away.
(Romney’s reaction was not a change from things he and his surrogates have been saying. Despite that, Obama seemed surprised and flummoxed. Ninety minutes later, so did the pundits on MSNBC.)
The overnight polls describe a massacre—a massacre which did occur.
That said, our focus here is on the press corps. That brings us to the performance of Jim Lehrer, a performance you’ve seen before.
It was in the first twenty minutes of last night’s debate that Romney bollixed Obama over Romney’s own tax proposal. In part, Romney did this by repeating disclaimers he has been making for weeks.
But in part, Romney accomplished this task by making misleading and confusing statements about his own proposal. And as Romney spread the confusion around, Jim Lehrer stared into air.
Lehrer made no attempt to clarify basic points of the discussion. More specifically, he failed to ask Romney to clarify the various things he was saying.
To borrow some language from long ago, Lehrer behaved like a potted plant—and this wasn't the first time! Because, just as a matter of fact, you’ve seen last night’s movie before.
You saw it twelve years ago to the day, when Candidate Gore kept trying to challenge misstatements by Candidate Bush.
Good grief! The first twenty minutes of last night’s debate was a virtual rerun of the first twenty minutes of the first Bush-Gore debate. In that instance, Gore was challenging plain misstatements by Bush about Bush’s prescription drug proposal.
In last night’s case, Obama was challenging misleading, occasionally inaccurate statements by Candidate Romney about Romney’s tax proposal.
In each case, Lehrer simply sat there, much like a potted plant. In each case, he made no attempt to bring factual clarity to a confused and confusing discussion.
Lehrer was unhelpful twelve years ago. His failure to act was even more striking last night.
Last night, Lehrer’s failure to act was quite striking. Reason: The facts of the present case are quite simple—and they’ve been on the table for months.
At issue is the highlighted statement made by Candidate Romney below.
Early in the debate, Obama complained about Romney’s tax cut proposal. In reply, Romney issued a flat denial:
OBAMA (10/3/12): We do have to close our deficit, and one of the things I'm sure we'll be discussing tonight is, how do we deal with our tax code? And how do we make sure that we are reducing spending in a responsible way, but also, how do we have enough revenue to make those investments?Obama said that Romney’s plan “calls for a $5 trillion tax cut.” Romney’s reply was swift, and it carried the evening:
And this is where there's a difference, because Governor Romney's central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts—that's another trillion dollars—and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for. That's $8 trillion. How we pay for that, reduce the deficit, and make the investments that we need to make, without dumping those costs onto middle-class Americans, I think is one of the central questions of this campaign.
LEHRER: Both of you have spoken about a lot of different things, and we're going to try to get through them in as specific a way as we possibly can.
But, first, Governor Romney, do you have a question that you'd like to ask the president directly about something he just said?
ROMNEY: Well, sure. I'd like to clear up the record and go through it piece by piece.
First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.
“First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut.”
People, you’ve seen that movie before! If you want to see the first version of this classic film, just go to the tape of the first Bush-Gore debate and watch the first twenty minutes! (Just click here. If you want, you can start at minute ten.)
In that earlier drama, a remarkable set of exchanges begins with this. This exchange occurred on October 3—2000, not 2012:
GORE (10/3/00): Jim, under my plan all seniors will get prescription drugs under Medicare...Except that was Bush’s plan. Gore pointed this out again and again while Lehrer played potted plant.
Here's how it works. You go to your own doctor, and your doctor chooses your prescription, and no HMO or insurance company can take—can take those choices away from you. Then you go to your own pharmacy, you fill the prescription and Medicare pays half the cost. If you're in a very poor family or if you have very high costs, Medicare will pay all the costs—a $25 premium and much better benefits than you could possibly find in the private sector.
Now here's the contrast: 95 percent of all seniors would get no help whatsoever under my opponent's plan for the first four or five years. Now one thing I don't understand, Jim, is, why is it that the wealthiest 1 percent get their tax cuts the first year, but 95 percent of seniors have to wait four to five years before they get a single penny?
BUSH: I guess my answer to that is the man's running on “Mediscare,” trying to frighten people in the—in the voting booth. It's just not the way, the way I think, and that's just not my intentions and it's not my plan.
Tomorrow, we’ll recall where that fateful, ten-minute exchange between Bush and Gore ended up. For today, let’s simply ask this:
In each of these instances, what should Lehrer have done?
Our answer to that is simple: Ideally, Lehrer should have stepped in to clarify what Bush and Romney were saying. Last night, he should have asked Romney to explain exactly what he meant when he said that he doesn’t have “a $5 trillion tax cut.”
Why should Lehrer have questioned Romney? Because under rules of these debates, the candidates can’t question each other! In 2000, Gore was not allowed to challenge or question Bush about his misstatements.
The same rule obtained last night. (Although, in fairness, it wasn’t clear that Obama would have known what to say or ask.)
As moderator, Lehrer was allowed to question Candidates Bush and Romney. In each case, he failed to act.
Tomorrow, we’ll offer more detail on these remarkably similar movies. But last night’s opening twenty minutes was a virtual rerun of the opening twenty minutes of the first Bush-Gore debate, an event which was held twelve years before to the night.
Obama seemed much less well-prepared than Gore—but Lehrer was on the scene each time. In each case, he failed to act.
It’s time for this potted plant to go! In our view, he should have been gone a long time ago.
Can someone possibly take away the NewsHour’s watering can?
Tomorrow: Two different campaigns, same movie
If you want to watch that old movie: To watch the earlier version of last night’s film, you only have to watch the first twenty minutes of the 2000 debate. For C-Span’s tape, click here.
You can start at minute ten if you choose. For added fun, see how many “sighs” you hear! (This is the debate at which Gore is said to have uttered those “loud,” “perpetual” sighs.)
Listen for those sighs if you wish! If you do, you'll learn what a “journalistic” scam looks like. But within the opening twenty minutes, you will see the same plot elements you saw in last night’s rerun:
Starting at minute ten, you will see Candidate Bush making flat misstatements about his own proposal.
You will see those misstatements contradicted by Candidate Gore.
You will see Bush repeat his misstatements, this time with indignation—and with a scripted zinger. (Romney used a scripted zinger at the same point last night.) And sure enough:
With Gore not allowed to question Bush, you’ll see Lehrer play potted plant!
First, you’ll see Lehrer tell the candidates that they’re over time. He did the same thing last night.
Finally, you’ll see him move on to the next topic, without making any attempt to clarify what’s being said.
Lehrer seems to enjoy playing potted plant. It’s time for Jim Lehrer to go.