Democrats and their supporters in the media are congratulating themselves for a job well done in the first Democratic debate. Both Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton included in their closing remarks canned celebrations of how civil and morally superior the Democratic debate was compared with the earlier GOP donnybrooks.
The New York Times began its Wednesday editorial extolling the value of civility thus: “It was impossible not to feel a sense of relief watching the Democratic debate after months dominated by the Republican circus of haters, ranters and that very special group of king killers in Congress.”
Longtime Hillary Clinton pet Lanny Davis churned out a column headlined, “The real winner in Las Vegas Tuesday night was the Democratic Party — in stark contrast to the GOP.”
Now, it is true that Donald Trump’s presence in the first two prime-time debates lends a superficial credence to claims that the Republican field is more coarse and insulting. Trump, after all, is coarse and insulting. He uses words like “losers” and “dumb” like they’re punctuation marks.
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But there are a couple of other factors at work. First of all, both parties have their no-chance candidates. In the GOP, these tend to be single-issue activists or ideological purists whom the cynics amongst us suspect are interested in getting radio shows or cable news gigs, or in selling books. Most Democratic vanity candidates are running for a Cabinet position in the next administration. As a result, they tend not to go for the jugular, particularly when the prohibitive front-runner is from a famously vindictive political dynasty with near-monopoly control of the party.
The more salient piece of the equation is that Republicans are always asked to justify their conservatism in a way that puts them either at odds with their supporters or with the public.
Here are just a few examples of questions asked of Republican presidential candidates in the debates so far:
“Governor Perry, try and answer this question again. What do you say to the family of illegals? Are you going to break them apart?”
“Governor Walker, you’ve consistently said that you want to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. You recently signed an abortion law in Wisconsin that does have an exception for the mother’s life, but you’re on the record as having objected to it. Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83 percent of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?”
“Senator Rubio, you favor a rape and incest exception to abortion bans. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York just said yesterday those exceptions are preposterous. He said they discriminate against an entire class of human beings. If you believe that life begins at conception, as you say you do, how do you justify ending a life just because it begins violently, through no fault of the baby?”
These questions were asked by Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly of Fox News — where I am a contributor. But you could find just as many similar questions from the CNN debate. The point isn’t that these are unfair questions. Presidential candidates should be asked tough questions.
Rather, the point is that Democrats rarely get asked similar questions from the mainstream media. The rape-and-incest abortion questions are totally fair game. But why was no Democrat asked an equivalent abortion question in Tuesday’s debate. Why not ask something like: “Mrs. Clinton, you recently told John Dickerson of CBS that you oppose any restrictions on abortion, at any stage of pregnancy. Do you honestly believe that it should be legal to abort a healthy 8-month-old fetus for non-medical reasons? Also, would you be OK with Planned Parenthood then selling that healthy fetus’ brain and heart?”
Sure, it’s a nasty question, but no less unfair or irrelevant than the ones Republicans routinely put to Republican candidates. It’s just as easy to concoct a host of questions about religion, immigration and gay rights that would illuminate that Democrats, too, can be out of the mainstream.
Anderson Cooper and his colleagues at CNN didn’t only lob softballs at the Democrats in Las Vegas; they made little to no effort to highlight the fact that on many social issues, the Democratic Party is often more out of the mainstream than the Republicans are. Why? Because the Democrats don’t seem out of the mainstream — to the mainstream media.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at email@example.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.