National Review's Reihan Salam this weekend demonstrated exactly why it should be required that there be at least one conservative present during televised political discussions.
Appearing on the syndicated "Chris Matthews Show," Salam had a spirited and at times contentious debate with the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan about conservatism, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party (video follows with transcript and commentary):
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, it was a big week for the President, Andrew. Do you think he's changed the climate of political discussion in this country?
ANDREW SULLIVAN, THE ATLANTIC: It’s too soon to say, I'm afraid. I hope he has but I will say this, that I think he's been remarkably consistent for 2 ½ years in saying that what he really wants to do is say goodbye to all of that red-blue, poisonous, toxic hostility. He wants to get to a rather boring, if elevated dialogue about how we solve our problems. His point is that this cultural warfare is preventing us from tackling really important problems. He's done that consistently. He said that consistently. But one small -- I would say probably twenty percent of the country just wasn't having it. He was inherently objectionable and illegitimate as a president, and the last two years, I think, has been a battle not between right and left, but between reason and unreason.
Salam responded to this nonsense a few minutes later:
REIHAN SALAM, NATIONAL REVIEW: I find the idea that, you know, the last couple of years have been a war between the force of reason and unreason, a little unreasonable, and I think that it's the kind of idea that President Obama was warning us against, I think, and rightly so. I saw on the right from the grass-roots to kind of elite, conservative commentators, a huge outpouring of support for the President’s speech, because I think there are a lot of people who embrace the idea that we should have a more dispassionate political conversation.
As the topic changed to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, things got even hotter between Salam and Sullivan:
MATTHEWS: Reihan, what did you make of the actual words she spoke and the tone?
SALAM: I have to say I think she made some pretty decent points. I think there were a lot of people who talked about the hateful climate in Arizona. The sheriff out there kind of made a lot of statements that were inherently political statements about an unfolding crime that we didn't fully understand. And as to her tone, there are some who say Sarah Palin wasn't being very presidential, and I actually think the whole gestalt of Sarah Palin is to not be presidential in the traditional sense. She is playing a different political game, she’s playing a longer game, and it's something that's very unsettling to a lot of political professionals because it seems to work. It seems to resonate.
MATTHEWS: Andrew, what did you think of Sarah’s performance on that videotape, released from, from her home I guess in Alaska?
SULLIVAN: I don't think this was the week to play a game, Reihan, and I think she's a game player. I don’t think she has…
SALAM: I think that's absolutely right. I think she is a very skilled game player and I think that she did not hit the exact right tone.
SULLIVAN: But I think what Americans are saying is that they are sick of games as politics, and they do want -- actually, for goodness sake, we have such extraordinary problems fiscally, primarily in two wars, that playing games a la Karl Rove and doing performance art, which is what this was, about her and actually applying the term "blood" to herself as opposed to the people (?) on the street…
SALAM: And the game is people elevating Sarah Palin as much as folks in the media have. She’s gone from…
SULLIVAN: Folks in the media? What about the Right?
SALAM: The Right has as response to what many people see as the undue focus on her, and then people say, well, let's stick up for her. That's exactly the dynamic that's been going on.
Finally, in a later segment about the presidential prospects for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, things really got heated:
SULLIVAN: And so this week, this week he goes on a religious right radio station and commits in public to reinstate Don't ask, Don't tell if he becomes president. That's how desperate he is. The Tea Party, of course is not about fiscal issues at all. They have no plans to balance the budget now or any time in the future. They are radical Christianist, right-wing group…
SALAM (shaking head in obvious disgust): That’s a…
SULLIVAN: …and he is trying to pander to that group directly through the religious right.
MATTHEWS: So why did he take on Palin in that interview we just showed?
SULLIVAN: He's going for her base with the religious right, because that’s the only thing…
MATTHEWS: Reihan, you demur here.
SALAM: Well, first of all, I think that's an impressive mischaracterization of the Tea Party. I think that when you look at the actual folks who are the members of the Tea Party…
SULLIVAN: Tell me someone who plans to balance the budget in the Tea Party?
SALAM: I can name you literally dozens of people, Andrew, and I’m one of them, and I identify with the Tea Party movement.
SULLIVAN: Really? You're a Tea Party member?
SULLIVAN: You favor balancing the budget?
SALAM: Let's get back to the subject, and I'm happy to do that.
What lucky viewers got a taste of on this program was what happens when a real conservative - NOT Andrew Sullivan - is put on one of these panels and can act as a referee to throw a flag any time one of the liberal guests makes an obvious misstatement.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was required for there to always be such person on these roundtables so that viewers would be assured of getting more than one side of the debate?
This certainly isn't to suggest a legal edict, but instead one from the various television networks to ensure a consistently fairer presentation of the issues facing the naton.
On the other hand, given some of the facial expressions being made by Matthews, Sullivan, and the other liberal guests - Gloria Borger and Norah O'Donnell - you have to wonder if Salam will ever be invited back when Sullivan's there.
Keep your fingers crossed, for this really was a very enjoyable discussion simply because of the counterpoint.
Bravo, Reihan. Bravo!