NEW YORK -– “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd spent the first quarter of Sunday’s show covering the fallout from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s claim four days earlier that President Barack Obama doesn’t love America.
While giving the controversy more oxygen, Todd seemed conflicted. He began Sunday’s segment by describing the frenzy over Giuliani’s recent comments at a private dinner for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) as a “race to the bottom” for all involved, showing “why Americans are learning how to hate politics and the media.”
When discussing the outrage of the week with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), Todd asked if anyone should care what Giuliani, who isn’t in office or running for one, thinks about the president. Todd later asked Barbour about Walker’s response to a question of whether Obama is Christian, yet acknowledged there’s debate over whether that question -- posed Saturday by The Washington Post -- was appropriate to ask. Before turning to the panelists to weigh in on all this, Todd lamented, “I’ve hated this story in so many ways.”
Todd’s ambivalence is likely felt by other political journalists who, after days of covering partisan volleys on cable news and social media, may get existential about how much of this -- from Giuliani’s inflammatory comments to Walker not identifying Obama as Christian -- actually matters to the public.
Such questions, even if far removed from public policy, could be said to help vet candidates by showing voters who can handle the pressure of the national spotlight. Such lines of inquiry may also indicate which candidates, in the case of Republicans, seem more willing to pander to the conservative base than to simply acknowledge that, yes, the president is Christian and surely loves America.
But the firestorm over Giuliani’s comments and Walker’s non-answers also highlight the media’s tendency to inflate any campaign utterance to the level of a scandal. It also poses a challenge to journalists who may be hesitant to promote a story, but don't want to appear out of the loop. So they end up reporting, tweeting or asking Sunday show panelists about the latest comment or unwillingness to comment about someone else's comment.
That's because the Giuliani mess didn't stop with Walker, but includes other potential 2016 contenders weighing in. On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked if Walker and Obama discussed faith during a meeting with governors.
It’s understandable that Walker faced questions after Giuliani’s swipes at the president, given that he was within earshot and the dinner's guest of honor. Walker also had the ability to squash the burgeoning controversy by quickly distancing himself from Giuliani’s comments in interviews with CNBC (Thursday), the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (Friday), and The Associated Press (Saturday). Instead, Walker wouldn't say if he believed Obama loved his country.
It was after the AP interview on Saturday afternoon that The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Robert Costa posed a different question for Walker: Does he think Obama is a Christian? “I don’t know,” Walker said.
The answer would seem clear to anyone awake for the 2008 election, complete with coverage of Obama's former fiery pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
All of which made it unclear and agitating for conservatives as to why Balz and Costa asked Walker for a take on Obama’s Christian views in the first place. Balz declined to comment and Costa did not respond to requests for comment.
Walker did tell the Post reporters that the question didn’t reflect the public’s interest and is “a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press.”
By Sunday night, Friends of Scott Walker kept up the press critique and began trying to raise money to fight back against the “Liberal Media” and its brand of “gotcha journalism.”
Not all conservatives thought attacking the messenger was a good idea. The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis said Walker gave a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad answer” to the Christianity question, and it didn't matter if it was relevant.
Campaign operatives on both sides of the aisle echoed Lewis's point. Whether one considers such questions unredeemable “gotcha journalism” or a useful way to to vet candidates, the savvy politician must answer.
Hogan Gidley, who served as an adviser on the presidential campaigns of Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012, told The Huffington Post that such questions are “par for the course.”
“This is the process. These are the questions,” Gidley said. “They’re not all going to be in-depth questions about foreign policy or domestic economic policy. You’re going to get some odd questions.
“If Governor Walker thinks that’s out of bounds, or that’s a tough question, wait until he gets in a living room in Iowa or a coffee shop in New Hampshire or pier in South Carolina,” said Gidley, who isn’t currently aligned with any candidate, but could be in 2016.
Gidley recalled how voters asked candidates he worked for about votes cast more than a decade earlier, and how such exchanges with the public may also be covered by the media. “You’ve just got to be able to be a little more nimble than these candidates are showing so far,” he added.
Former top Obama adviser Robert Gibbs similarly pointed out on “Meet the Press” Sunday that “there are trap doors every day running for president, and if you want to run and talk about policy, you have to answer the very easy questions easily.”
Gibbs said that if Walker had just said he thought Obama is a Christian, then “there wouldn’t be a story in The Washington Post today.”