October 2, 2008

Success Through Lowered Expectations

In a flurry of what can probably be best described as pre-emptive damage control, the McCain campaign and its surrogates are currently manufacturing outrage about what they perceive to be a pro-Obama conflict of interest on the part of Gwen Ifill, the veteran journalist who will moderate tonight's Vice Presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. The GOP is rightfully concerned about Governor Palin's abysmal performance in an extended interview with Katie Couric of CBS News (see clips at the end of this post), but the basis for their ire appears - perhaps unsurprisingly - to be more than a little thin.

Ms. Ifill first ran afoul of Republicans in 2004 as moderator of that election cycle's vice presidential debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney. When Senator Edwards attacked Mr. Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, the vice president said, "I can respond, Gwen, but it's going to take more than 30 seconds." Ms. Ifill replied "Well, that's all you've got," which, according to the debate transcript, drew laughter. (She also later clarified that she had not intended to be snippy toward the GOP candidate; she was simply enforcing the rules of the debate.) It is unclear what answer she could have supplied - other than the plainly-inappropriate "That's OK, sir - take as much time as you need" that would satisfy those grinding this particular axe.

Earlier this year, Ms. Ifill was again criticized by Republicans for appearing "dismissive" when offering a summary of crowd reaction to Mrs. Palin's speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC). In video of her report (below), she is certainly not jumping up and down in the exultation shared by the party faithful, but it is pretty hard to make the case that she either looks "disgusted" or that she fails to report on actual events, noting repeatedly the "pent up enthusiasm" that "exploded" repeatedly during the GOP number two's address:

Now, the right wing is claiming that, prior to selecting the moderators for the debates, no one was aware that Ms. Ifill had written an as-yet unpublished - but allegedly pro-Obama - book, making her unsuitable, in their minds, as a moderator. Unfortunately, for that argument, publicly available statements about the book were being made in late July - in other words, no one was concealing its existence - two weeks before the campaigns agreed on the selection of moderators.

Issues of timing aside, if the book is truly pro-Obama, it could reasonably be argued that Ms. Ifill should have proactively disclosed that fact, but the text, entitled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama" is described by the publisher as follows:
In "The Breakthrough...", veteran journalist Gwen Ifill surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.

Ifill argues that the Black political structure formed during the Civil Rights movement is giving way to a generation of men and women who are the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of the 1960s. She offers incisive, detailed profiles of such prominent leaders as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and U.S. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, and also covers up-and-coming figures from across the nation. Drawing on interviews with power brokers like Senator Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and many others, as well as her own razor-sharp observations and analysis of such issues as generational conflict and the "black enough" conundrum, Ifill shows why this is a pivotal moment in American history.
This is no more an inflammatory or inappropriate topic for a debate moderator and student of politics to cover than one entitled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Gender in the Age of Hillary Clinton". Some critics have honed in on adjectives in the above like "stunning" and "bold," but with the history-making rise of the first African-American to stand as the presidential nominee for a major political party, these descriptors seem apppropriate. Further, if the list of people interviewed appears to heavily favor Democrats, it is inarguable that there are simply more black Democrats than black Republicans at any level of either party, but most especially in the top ranks. Even if the book turns out to be a hagiography of Senator Obama, all indications to date are that it is not, and short of calling Gwen Ifill a liar, it would be pretty hard to justify dismissing her from her duties because of it.

Given the fact that Bob Schieffer - a golfing partner to George W. Bush who admitted "It's always difficult to cover someone you know personally," - was not only allowed to moderate one of the 2004 presidential debates, but will moderate one in 2008 as well - it's pretty difficult to make the case that somehow Ms. Ifill's reportage or her authorship rise to the level of a conflict of interest. (Unless one subscribes to the IOKIYAR doctrine.) Despite recent public pratfalls, by many accounts Governor Palin is expected to perform credibly within the structure of the vice presidential debate. The ginned-up controversy over Gwen Ifill then, is merely one more distraction designed to diminish expectations and help her claim victory in clearing a bar for success that has been set as low as possible.

Katie Couric Interviews Governor Sarah Palin:


lokywoky said...

Controversy over Gwen Ifill? Give me a break! It would be really difficult to find a more professional journalist out there. Certainly Bob Schieffer and Tom Brokaw are not - they both are admittedly 'in the tank' for the GOP. Lehrer is more difficult to peg - but I've heard him make off-the-cuff comments in other venues that leads me to believe his politics are right-wing as well although he also does a good job.

And now we are going to go the rounds with Ayers/Wright/Rezko again courtesy of Palin. Ugh. At least Obama is counter-attacking with Keating 5 now. Yay!

Good post!

PBI said...

Hi lokywoky,

I thought Ifill was very professional, although after seeing the debate, I thought she did a sub-par job in asking follow-up questions. She really didn't do much more than ask one candidate a question and then ask the other to respond. I think part of it was that there wasn't much in the way of fireworks between Biden and Palin, but she missed some opportunities. All in all, though, I find it pretty hard to swallow concerns over Gwen Ifill given Schieffer's admissions in particular.

With regard to the resurgence of smears, it's a mark of desperation, and as Obama said yesterday, it's a sign that McCain is out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time. At least the Obama campaign is being smart enough to come back swinging!