Character Questions

Take cover, ABC!  Incoming!

    “[Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos] disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.” – Will Bunch, Philadelphia Daily News

    “Perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.” – Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher

    “… all the substance of a Beavis and Butt-Head marathon.” – Walter Shapiro, Salon 

    “… petty, shallow, process-obsessed…utterly divorced from the actual issues that Americans want to talk about.” – Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic

    “…Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos turned in shoddy, despicable performances.” – Tom Shales, The Washington Post

What could ABC's Democratic presidential debate moderators possibly have done to elicit such vitriol from the elite liberal media? 

Stabbing the sacred cows, that's what. Leftwingers in the media and the blogosphere are furious that during Wednesday's debate, the ABC journalists had the effrontery to ask Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton some tough character, values and judgment questions the candidates would rather not answer. 

Obama was forced to explain why he refuses to wear the American flag in his lapel, why he associates with former Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers, why he associates with America-hating, racist pastor Jeremiah Wright, and what he meant when he told a San Francisco audience that small-town Americans “cling to” guns and religion.  Clinton was forced to address the widespread public perception that she is dishonest, based on her misrepresentation of her visit to Bosnia.

This was no “meaningless inquisition about loose semantics and questionable acquaintances,” as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote today.  By devoting the first half of the evening to character questions, Gibson and Stephanopoulos improved the quality of the presidential debates.

Critics are saying ABC should have focused on the “issues,” by which they mean Clinton's and Obama's policy proposals.  Of course the policy proposals are important. That's why ABC devoted the second half of the debate to them.  But character, values and judgment ought to outweigh the “issues” when we're electing a president. 

For one thing, the personal character of a president affects his job performance and the moral example he sets for the nation.  For example, Bill Clinton – enough said.

Also, nobody knows what the issues will be six months after the election.  All we can know about is the character of the person we put in the White House.  President Bush's signature issue during the 2000 campaign was Social Security reform.  His proposals were inevitably killed by gridlock on Capitol Hill, but long before Social Security privatization died, the issue was obscured by the rush of international events.  Scant weeks after Bush took office, the Chinese government tested his mettle by taking hostage an American aircrew.  Eight months after taking office, al Qaeda attacked America on 9/11.  With war thrust upon us, even some Democrats reportedly admitted they were relieved that George Bush, and not Al Gore, won the 2000 election.   

ABC'S tough questions provided some insight into how the candidates might handle tough situations. We learned more about Obama and Hillary in the first half of the debate than the second half, when they drearily recited their campaign talking points and demonstrated again there's not a dime's worth of difference between them on the “issues.”


The Wall Street Journal's Kimberly Strassel observed today that in recent weeks,

“Yes We Can” has devolved into “Who the Heck Is This Guy?”  Mr. Obama's political brilliance to date has been to use his message of hope to deflect questions about himself or his record….But the San Fran comments proved one scandal too many; man and message have now been delinked.

In November America will fill the Oval Office with a man or a woman, not a message.  Americans need to find out as much as they can about the candidates' character, values and judgment, and the media are responsible for informing them. ABC has set a good example.

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.