Last Tuesday I attended the Speaker Series here in New York City that featured a debate between Karl Rove and James Carville moderated by Charlie Rose.
Now these two gentlemen, as much as they both demand respect and even admiration, should probably be universally scorned. These two men in duality may in fact be primarily responsible for the never-ending campaign that has created the contentious political landscape that has buried quality solutions to problems, heightened the emotions around what should be straightforward off-election cycle issues, and as a result further disenfranchised the majority of Americans over our political process.
Because of people like Rove and Carville now every policy proposal and every issue is a campaign regardless of what time of year it is. Campaign is actually a euphemism for minor issues becoming apocalyptic battles between the forces of good and evil. Newly elected representatives quickly become incumbents that send surrogates out to the media and even stump for themselves even though the election they won was only a few months prior.
There has been much more harm than good from this. In theory it would be great for citizens and their representatives to be engaged at all times throughout the year without an election forcing the interaction. In practice, the only thing it’s really done is take the intense “us vs. them” rancor that occurs every 4 years in the last two months of a presidential election and maintained that level of animosity for the duration of the elected’s term. And when there are no issues, there’s nonsense no one cares about like Obama vs. Cheney and Bush firing four US Attorneys. What’s worse is there is no context to these “debates” that are really nothing more than childish pundits pouting and all but covering their ears yelling “na na na na” when the other side speaks even an alternate – let alone opposing – view. You can’t blame the media for not providing context because they need viewers and readers every day so it’s against their interests to give weight to certain issues over others. Furthermore, the goal of strategists like Rove and Carville is to have the media create noise over nearly every issue.
With that political reality hovering over us as we walked out of the venue when the debate was over, my friend that also attended put it perfectly, “I didn’t learn a thing, but that was a lot of fun.”
What was a lot of fun was an event that got pretty raucous a few times. There was the typical “engagement” of the Manhattan crowd that loudly booed at certain times when Rove spoke – so glad they were open-minded enough to hear an insider from outside of their political persuasion explain himself. After all, everyone was there to hear the crowd hiss and yell out instead of hearing what Rove had to say. These New Yorkers are so sophisticated: shouting down the opposing viewpoint, reading the New York Times, commenting on the Daily Kos, and watching MSNBC to keep up with current events.
But let’s face it; our side isn’t any more sophisticated. Everyone watches and reads news that’s tailored toward their base political beliefs and ignores everyone else. It’s all infotainment just like this debate. It’s probably why so many people paid so much to be there in person. Instead of yelling at the TV if they happen upon Fox News, they can be around like-minded people and shout down someone in person
While both men took the stage at 8:15 there were idiot protestors that waited until 9pm to start making noise about how “Rove is a war criminal” culminating in one of them calmly walking on stage with handcuffs ready to arrest him before being tackled and carried out. Even Carville yelled for them to shut up.
The most heated moment was during the discussion of Hurricane Katrina where they were flat-out screaming with fingers pointed right in each other’s faces. Carville was ranting about how “Bush didn’t care” and “He was out in San Diego.” Rove countered with explaining “the buses were underwater because the mayor was too incompetent to order an evacuation” and that the people of Louisiana knew who to blame by voting out the mayor and the governor in the next elections.
Carville really is a cartoon character. He exceeded very high expectations for live entertainment. It got histrionic and very childish at times like when he cleaned his glasses with his tie after making a mediocre point he thought was brilliant. Still, nothing beats his spastic muttering of arrogant dismissiveness against straw man arguments he claims are Republican positions. The way he rephrases and twists what his debate opponent says into the most reductionist red meat for the left-wing is uncanny.
It’s the job of a reviewer to critique what did happen and not what the reviewer wishes had happened… except in cases like this where it is so obvious what should have been done.
Charlie Rose is just miserable and deserves the blame for making a possibly fascinating and forward-looking discussion into a tired, cliché left-right political debate. He had his moments moderating and there’s no doubt he’s very smart, but he needs to know we were all there for Rove and Carville that night. At the same time the Charlie Rose show is watched by an audience interested in whatever guest is on that particular night. No one cares what Charlie Rose thinks. The topics he chose modeled his show with in-depth discussions of the superficial given equal time to the relevant. He wanted to really delve into both the Bush and Clinton Administrations and their legacies. He often asked multi-faceted questions that took upwards of 90 seconds to finally finish. Lame.
The main issue with the debate is that Rose should have absolutely focused on the present and the future. There could have been a “clear the air” portion that could have rehashed some of the biggest misconceptions the public has about the last 20 years from these two insiders. Admittedly it was interesting that one of Rove’s first answers was to dismiss the myth of the base election. He further explained that the base, by its nature and namesake, is a minority and that a party has to reach out to persuade the voters necessary to win an election. Likewise, it was funny for Carville to contort his face like a Gremlin giggling over the joy of recommending the attacks on Rush Limbaugh by the White House in an official capacity.
As entertaining as it was for Rove and Carville to really go at it and talk over each other as they compared the Bush and Clinton administrations, it would have been much better had the two discussed 2008 campaign and the next 2-4 years. This would have resulted in a sort of improvised brainstorming and strategy session in front of the live audience. A focus on predictions and trends would create a dynamic where Rove and Carville would be forced to work together and against each other. Normally I am against speculating this far out in politics where things can change in an hour, but these two men are Seers.
With this in mind the debate could have been separated into two segments. The first segment could have been about the 2010 congressional elections. The first topic: maintain and even increase the Democrats’ seats in Congress. Carville would be in his element while Rove would have to give insight to the other side. And then the second topic would be the converse: what advice or strategies do they have for the Republicans to make gains? Now Carville is helping the Republicans and Rove is working with him.
Questions that would have been great to ask because they need to be answered by major figures like Rove and the conservative netroots alike with a guy like Carville acting as an overcritical beta tester:
Who should lead the Republican party?
What is the main thing Republicans need to focus on for 2009 and then after?
How do Democrats maintain and possibly expand their power to record setting numbers?
What would be the worst thing/best thing Democrats and Obama can do to destroy/build on their political capital?
What would be the worst thing/best thing Republicans can do to destroy/rebuild their political capital?
The second segment would then be about the 2012 Presidential election.
What does Obama need to do to win another 4 years?
Who will run on the Republican side?
What are the major Republican candidates’ weaknesses and strengths in the context of the political landscape and against Obama?
How do the Republicans take on the juggernaut that is the Obama machine – his personal charisma, his tremendous war chest, and an endless supply of volunteers – with 3 years to prepare?
The reason Rove was so entertaining and insightful on Fox News during 2008 because he was making observations and giving advice to the Democrat party as well the Republicans. How did the Speakers Series not take advantage of this? At least they took advantage of James Carville, but that’s easy – just unlock the cage and replace the leash with a shock collar.