My first political memories were watching C-Span, Crossfire, and the McLaughlin Group. With my parents leaning Left politically and my brothers and me leaning Right — and all of us having strong opinions — our dinner table conversations sometimes sounded like these debate shows, but with the civilizing influence of our mother.
I was working for Bob Novak when CNN killed Crossfire. I’m not talking about when CNN took Crossfire off the air, but when they killed the show, by hiring Democratic operatives James Carville and Paul Begala to go against conservative journalists Novak and Tucker Carlson. Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloomberg makes the case today that someone should bring back pre-Begala, pre-Carville, pre-studio audience Crossfire.
Ponnuru is right. And MSNBC contributor and regular guest-host Ezra Klein is off-base in his objections on twitter (here and here). Specifically, Klein’s second point is precisely a call for a good Left-vs-Right fight without distractions of party allegiance. Klein wrote: ” ‘left’ and ‘right’ change positions frequently, and often in response to party incentives rather than new information.” Klein is describing Carville and Begala accurately, but not their liberal predecessors, I think, and not their conservative counterparts.
The imbalance of Crossfire’s later days was ugly. Nobody was on stage to counterbalance Carville or Begala’s partisan hackery, and often nobody on stage would counterbalance Novak’s or Carlson’s conservative ideology.
For instance, take the May 7, 2002, episode, which I clearly remember watching. After Novak pressed Democratic farm-bill advocate Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) on how she could support a bloated farm bill enriching farmers and bankers, Lincoln defended the measure on liberal grounds, pleading that farmers need government-inflated commodity prices because “there’s no way that they can survive on” present market prices, “particularly in a global economy right now.”
Carville responded by saying the farm bill is “a terrible piece of legislation,” and asking conservative Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), “Why in the name of God’s green earth then is President Bush going to sign it, if it’s so bad, and such an anathema?”
Here’s their back-and-forth:
FLAKE: I would ask [Bush] the same question. This is not only bad policy…
CARVILLE: But there must be a reason. If it’s so terrible, if it violates free market principles, it’s a big government giveaway, if it’s a sop (ph) to corporate farmers……
FLAKE: Well, he’s taken my speech completely. It’s an awful, awful bill. You mentioned that Americans enjoy the cheapest food supply everywhere. The price of sugar here is three times the price it is on the world market because of farm subsidies and price supports.
Again, no partisan Republican to counterbalance Carville’s partisanship, and position-wise, it was 3-on-1 against the farm bill — Novak and Flake opposing it on substantive grounds, and Carville opposing it for political reasons.
The solution, of course, is not to get a GOP version of Carville, but go back to having a liberal version of Novak.