Fred Barnes: CNN's Debates 'Screw Republicans...Boost Democrats'

Describing the agenda of questions CNN chose to pose, during its Wednesday night Republican presidential debate with YouTube, as “completely different” from those forwarded to Democrats in July, Fred Barnes, on Thursday's Special Report on FNC, cited the contrast in questions about the military and Iraq as demonstrating how CNN picked the questioners to “screw Republicans” and “boost Democrats.” Mara Liasson of NPR echoed the sentiment, recalling that the questions put to Democrats “were about global warming and health care and education, all kind of Democratic issues” and so they “weren't challenging the basic principles of the Democratic Party,” but “there were lots of questions last night that were” meant to undermine GOP principles.

Earlier in the day, on The Weekly Standard's Web site, Barnes, Executive Editor of the magazine, hypothesized: “I don't know if the folks who put the debate together were purposely trying to make the Republican candidates look bad, but they certainly succeeded.” He asserted that the YouTube video submission questions CNN decided to air reflected “the issues, in the view of liberals and many in the media, on which Republicans look particularly unattractive.”

Referring to how CNN put retired Brigadier General Keith Kerr, a member of Clinton's steering committee on gay and lesbian issues, in the audience for a follow-up after his YouTube video asking why gays can't serve in the military, Barnes observed on FNC:
He ambushed the Republican candidates who they knew were going to be against gays in the military, which he was for, and they handed him the mic so he could embarrass them, make them feel squeamish, or that was the attempt. Remember the CNN debate in Las Vegas where they had a soldier get up with his mother and he talked, but did he challenge the Democrats who were against the war? No. He was against the war, too. He ratified their position. So you can see the completely different ways CNN handled that. One to screw Republicans, one to boost Democrats.
In a Friday Washington Post article, “CNN Admits Holes in Screening of Questioners,” Howard Kurtz reported:
CNN expressed regret yesterday for allowing a Hillary Clinton adviser to ask a question at Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, even as controversy swirled about two other questioners who have declared their support for Democratic candidates.

Retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, who asked why gays should not be allowed to serve openly in the military, is a member of Clinton's steering committee on gay and lesbian issues, something her campaign disclosed in a news release in June...
The exchange on the November 29 edition of FNC's Special Report with Brit Hume, but anchored by Bret Baier:
BRET BAIER: Fred, how about the questioners chosen for this debate?

FRED BARNES: Well, remember, CNN says they're just average Americans that are asking the questions that Americans are interested in. But they had 5,000 people send in tapes, and they picked out those 34. And included in them were a number of Democratic activists for Obama and for Edwards and this guy for Clinton, and some of them had some very loaded questions. There were also a lot of questions really trying to stick it to Rudy Giuliani, and so it was completely different from the Democratic debate. Here's a good example of it, Bret, and that is the General got up, they had him, he ambushed the Republican candidates who they knew were going to be against gays in the military, which he was for, and they handed him the mic so he could embarrass them, make them feel squeamish, or that was the attempt. Remember the CNN debate in Las Vegas where they had a soldier get up with his mother and he talked, but did he challenge the Democrats who were against the war? No. He was against the war, too. He ratified their position. So you can see the completely different ways CNN handled that. One to screw Republicans, one to boost Democrats.

BAIER: Well, let me read the CNN statement about this today: "CNN cared about what you asked, not who you are. This was the case for both the Democratic and the Republican CNN YouTube debates. The vested interests who are challenging the credibility of the questioners are trying to distract voters from the substantive issues they care about most." Mara, is it an issue?

MARA LIASSON, NPR: Look, these debates have been lots of fun. They've been great. They've been creative and interesting. And I think CNN does itself a great disservice when it doesn't apply the exact same kind of criteria to both debates. I covered both of them. In the Democratic debate, I don't think there were any questions that were clearly coming from, you know, a Republican point of view. They were generally sympathetic. They were about global warming and health care and education, all kind of Democratic issues. They weren't challenging them. There was one kind anti-tax question, I think, but they weren't challenging the basic principles of the Democratic Party. There were lots of questions last night that were. I think the question about the Bible was mocking. I think one of the abortion questions was clearly not from someone who was pro-life. It was the opposite, so, you know, they also tended to find people who were on what you might call, kind of, the libertarian end of the spectrum among Republicans. Now, that, I think, is an artifact of the YouTube community itself, which tends to attract younger people.
The Bible question Liasson cited came from a man who asked, as he held up a Bible: “I am Joseph. I am from Dallas, Texas, and how you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?”

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth located the questioner's MySpace page and it appears Joey Dearing is a genuine Bible-believing Christian, but that doesn't mean the question wasn't chosen so as to put Republicans in the position of saying the Bible is literally accurate, a position which would allow the media to paint them as extremists, or say they don't believe every word and thus alienate part of the GOP's base.

This YouTube page has videos of all the questions and answers at the November 28 debate.

An excerpt from the entry by Barnes, in a The Daily Standard compilation of reactions to the debate, by editors and writers for The Weekly Standard:
....I don't know if the folks who put the debate together were purposely trying to make the Republican candidates look bad, but they certainly succeeded. True, the candidates occasionally contributed. For the first few minutes, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney continued their debate over their records on immigration and did so with the kind of intensity that this trivial matter didn't warrant. These are two fine candidates who have only themselves to blame for looking petty.

But it was chiefly the questions and who asked them that made the debate so appalling. By my recollection, there were no questions on health care, the economy, trade, the S-chip children's health care issue, the "surge" in Iraq, the spending showdown between President Bush and Congress, terrorist surveillance, or the performance of the Democratic Congress.

Instead there were questions -- ones moderator Anderson Cooper kept insisting had required a lot of time and effort by the questioners -- on the Confederate flag, Mars, Giuliani's rooting for the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, whether Ron Paul might run as an independent for president, and the Bible. The best response to these questions was Romney's refusal to discuss what the Confederate flag represents. Fred Thompson discussed it.

The most excruciating episode occurred when Cooper allowed a retired general in the audience to drone on with special pleading in favor of allowing gays in the military. This was a setup. The general had asked a question by video, then suddenly appeared in the crowd and got the mike. The aim here could only have been to make the Republican candidates, all of whom oppose gays in the military, squirm. As it turned out, they didn't appear to. The general turns out to be a Clinton supporter, by the way.

By my count, of the 30-plus questions, there were 6 on immigration, 3 on guns, 2 on abortion, 2 on gays, and one on whether the candidates believe every word in the Bible. These are exactly the issues, in the view of liberals and many in the media, on which Republicans look particularly unattractive. And there were two questions by African Americans premised loosely on the notion that blacks get nothing from Republicans and have no reason to vote for them.

These questions would better be asked of Democrats at one of their presidential debates. After all, the biggest news so far at a Democratic debate was when Hillary Clinton muffed a question about illegal immigrants and drivers' licenses....
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center