Fred Wins, Iowa Loses
Why Carolyn Washburn should keep her day job.
4:30 PM, Dec 12, 2007 • By DEAN BARNETT
HERE WE WERE on Wednesday, a nation of political junkies gathered around our televisions to watch the candidates debate each other one last time, and we had as a moderator one Carolyn Washburn, the editor of the Des Moines Register. I don't mean to go all East-coast-elitist on you; I'm sure there are people in Iowa who could capably moderate a presidential debate. Unfortunately, and obviously, Carolyn Washburn is not one of them.
The bulk of the post-debate analysis will probably focus on how maladroit Washburn was at the job. She did the impossible--she moderated the last Iowa debate between the Republican candidates before caucuses and yet saw to it that none of the candidates engaged each other. In other words, the moderator ensured that the debate would be as lively as a 12 part PBS series on "How Grass Grows." A personal aside to the Des Moines Register--"boring" is not synonymous with "serious."
The problems went beyond Washburn's lack of mad moderating skillz. From the outset, Washburn announced that the candidates would not be discussing either Iraq or immigration. Swell! It's the biggest debate of the season, so let's take the two biggest issues off the table. For what it's worth, Washburn brought all the charm to her assignment of a latter-day Nurse Ratched.
At some point, the political parties will have to begin to wonder why they entrust such a critical part of our president-choosing process to people like Carolyn Washburn, people who obviously aren't up to the task.
I've always felt it a swell thing that Iowa and New Hampshire force our politicians to engage ordinary voters on a retail level. But if the local media are going to hijack the process and ruin it, as Carolyn Washburn surely ruined today's debate, then the parties are going to have to rethink parts of the process, if not the entire thing.
Okay, enough of that. On to the winners and losers (other than the Iowa media):
THE WINNER was Fred Thompson. Fred came to play. He also had the obvious moment of the day when he took on the officious moderator, refusing to go along with one of those idiotic "raise your hands" questions. Given the hour that the debate took place, a lot of people will probably see only a highlight package of the debate. The unquestioned highlight was Fred slapping down the moderator. Even putting that aside, Fred had his best day of the campaign. He was serious, thoughtful, and authoritative. It was a wonderful day for him.
THE SILVER MEDALIST was Mitt Romney. Romney continued his fine run. Actually, the overly dry format played to his advantage. His wonkiness shines through on virtually every issue, and because there was no interplay, this debate was all about the wonkiness. His answer on education nearly broke the Luntz-o-meter.
Then there was everyone else. Huckabee was off his game. It seemed like the weight of being a frontrunner wore him down. He was overly cautious. The freewheeling jokester of past debates was but a distant memory. Rudy did alright for himself, but he had to deal with one of those "Do you still beat your wife?" questions when the moderator asked whether or not his presidential administration will be more transparent as relates to scandal than his mayoralty. And McCain assumed the Invisible Man role that Fred Thompson normally plays.
I would be remiss if I left this analysis without dedicating at least a few sentences to Alan Keyes. If moderator Washburn was Nurse Ratched, Alan Keyes was a patient who went off his meds. I'm quite confident that he broke the presidential debate record for most frequent usage of the word "womb."
To bring it full circle, Keyes's distracting presence was yet another indictment of the unworthiness of the Iowa media for the enormous role it plays in this process. Keyes isn't just a frivolous candidate for president. He's not a candidate at all. And yet he was allowed on the stage to toss bombs and to perversely whine about his lack of airtime. Thompson and Romney, alone amongst the contenders, had the good sense to use Keyes as a comic foil.
SO WHAT RIPPLES WILL today's snoozefest send forth? The YouTube debate was a seismic shindig--it heralded the arrival of Mike Huckabee as a serious candidate in this race. Today, the incompetence of the Des Moines Register's moderator may well drown out all other stories.
But Fred Thompson had a big moment when he took on that moderator, and refused to play by her idiotic rules. That moment, and his overall performance, may well reignite his campaign.
Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.