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Gregory's Interview with DeMint Puts Politics Above Policy

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In recent days, I've shared my thoughts concerning the flaws in the Delaware Senate debate between Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons, as well as a reflection on the lack of serious, sustained discourse in our national politics.

Today, I wanted to discuss the ways in which politicians are often interviewed by political journalists. On Meet the Press this past Sunday, David Gregory interviewed Senator Jim DeMint. What transpired was a perfect example of a theoretically hard-hitting interview - that's the MTP mantra, after all. But in actuality, the exchange failed to reveal anything new about Mr. DeMint's philosophy of government. It focused unnecessarily on political horse-race questions and curiosities which have little relevance to the issues at hand. The Senator wasn't asked to justify his assertions, even those based on dubious premises. And finally, since no issue was explored in anything more than a cursory fashion, the interview's educational potential was extremely limited.

Mr. Gregory most likely believed that by getting Senator DeMint to state his opinions on the record, he was doing his job. He's partially right, but it's more important to force political leaders to explain why they believe what they believe and to make them back up assertions with facts. Otherwise, our political discourse will continue consisting of little more than two teams talking in isolation from one another, without either being held to account for the accuracy of their statements.

Below is a shortened version of the transcript of the DeMint interview, with commentary in bold. (All of the questions and responses are included below. I've simply shortened them to focus on their most salient aspects.)

--Interview begins---

MR. GREGORY: ...And the big question now, how will the Republicans use the new power they have? Joining me from his home state of South Carolina this morning, the Washington leader of the tea party, Republican Senator Jim DeMint...

SEN. JIM DeMINT (R-SC): Thank you, David. And I can't claim to be the leader of the tea party, but I'm sure glad they raised the interest level of the American voter this year...

MR. GREGORY: Well, well, let me ask you that, plain and simple. Is the tea party now running the Republican Party?

SEN. DeMINT: Hardly. I'm hoping the Republican Party will embrace a lot of the ideas of the tea party, but it's a mistake to think that the tea party is one big organization...It's made of up thousands of leaders all across the country of...They want to take back the power from the Washington politicians...

Gregory chose to ignore DeMint's assertion that the Tea Party had "raised the interest level of the American voter this year," even though the statement is highly selective: there was a large drop in participation between 2008 and 2010, including among constituencies which supported Obama heavily two years ago. He also allowed DeMint to portray the Tea Party as a decentralized movement, and didn't ask him to comment on the well-documented financing it's receiving from wealthy conservatives, such as the Koch family.

MR. GREGORY: What about the election results on Tuesday? In your judgment, was that step one in making President Obama a one-term president?

Gregory is obviously trying to lead DeMint to admit that the Republican Party's real goal over the next two years will be to defeat Obama in 2012. It's a political horse-race question that values the machinations of political operatives over a substantive discussion of issues.

SEN. DeMINT: Well, I don't know that that's the issue. I think people are rejecting in large numbers this rampage of government spending and takeover that the, the president has been leading...So I think this is a rejection of Obama's policy...

MR. GREGORY: ...another question about the tea party. You were active in supporting tea party candidates around the country. You had some, some big winners around the country...But you also had some notable losses...Do you think the tea party actually cost the Republican Party control of the Senate?

Again, DeMint is allowed to make a provocative claim - that the election was "a rejection of Obama's policy" - without being asked to justify his assertion. Instead, Gregory asks once again about the political power of the Tea Party.

SEN. DeMINT: ...The tea party are responsible for just about every Republican who was elected around the country...

MR. GREGORY: Senator, you're not really saying that it was just lack of Republican support that tanked her candidacy, are you? This is a woman who said on national--in an ad that she was not a witch.

SEN. DeMINT: Well, I think we did see in the, in the wake of her primary win, a number of Republicans suggest she was not a viable candidate...

This section of the interview ends by dredging up the political mistakes of a candidate who was not elected, and hence holds no influence or power. It seems as though Gregory hoped to get DeMint to admit that backing O'Donnell was a mistake, politically. Thus far, therefore, we've only heard DeMint's view of various partisan considerations, not his stance on any issues. At this point, Gregory attempts to shift his focus.

MR. GREGORY: All right. So, Senator, let me go down the list of important issues that I know you care about...On health care, how do you go about dismantling it?

SEN. DeMINT: Well, first of all we have to stop the funding of Obamacare and over the next two years...I don't think Americans want to throw out our current system, they want to improve it...The first step is obviously to, to defund it, and I think we can do that with Republicans controlling the House.

MR. GREGORY: But do you think repeal is realistic?

SEN. DeMINT: Yes, I do. I think the next Republican running for president needs to run on complete repeal of Obamacare, because we really can't tweak it, David. It's built on a platform of government control, and that doesn't really work in America...

MR. GREGORY: Well, you're talking about the president in 2012, running for president. You don't really think that you can overcome a presidential veto of repealing health care in the Senate, do you?

SEN. DeMINT: Well, not before 2012. But we can certainly defund it...

In this exchange, Gregory once again substituted heat for light. While it is valuable for voters to know that DeMint believes in repealing the health care reform bill, Senator DeMint was not asked to prove or support any of his assertions. Most centrally, he claimed that the Democrats' approach to health care reform was illegitimate because it is "built on a platform of government control, and that doesn't really work in America." A statement such as this one has vast implications for DeMint's governing philosophy. It also raises numerous other questions: what else does DeMint want to take out of the hands of the government? Is he against all federal and state regulation of industry? Does he want to privatize the military? Is he against Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? Does he oppose all public education? When prominent government officials issue broadsides against "government control," they should be asked to explain what, exactly, they mean. Instead, Gregory remained fixated on questions concerning the likely political maneuverings of the Republican Party. Hence, the audience didn't learn anything about the thinking behind DeMint's assertion, and the Senator was allowed to make powerful assertions in an accountability-free environment.

MR. GREGORY: All right, let me move to a few others. The cultural litmus test for Republicans, I've been told, the earmark issue...You want them done away with, as do other tea party lawmakers and other Republicans. But Mitch McConnell, of course, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, was asked about it the other day, and this is what he said.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL (R-KY): As I think all of you know, you could eliminate every congressional earmark and it would save no money. It's really an argument about discretion.

MR. GREGORY: Doesn't sound like he's with you all the way. Is this a showdown coming for Republicans?

SEN. DeMINT: Well, it, it may be...

MR. GREGORY: But what about Leader McConnell? He is not with you.

SEN. DeMINT: We need to focus on...

MR. GREGORY: He is suggesting that it's more a question of discretion. This is a leader of the Republicans. Are you prepared to go toe-to-toe with him, and is this going to be a big showdown with your Republican leadership?

SEN. DeMINT: I don't think so. Mitch McConnell has voted twice for an earmark ban that I've proposed in the Senate...

Once again, we have a discussion of political tactics instead of an examination of premises. Eliminating earmarks from federal spending bills has been a talking point for Democratic and Republican politicians alike, and it would constitute a drastic change in the way business is done in Washington. But the potential implications of such a change - good and bad - aren't discussed. Rather, Gregory tries to force DeMint to start a fight with Mitch McConnell. DeMint wisely parries the question, and viewers are left without any deeper understanding of what earmarks are, what they are used for, what their potential pitfalls are, or how much of the budget they constitute - all questions which are complicated and often misrepresented.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Let me ask you about another hot button issue, and that is the debt ceiling...Will you vote to increase the debt ceiling?

SEN. DeMINT: No, I won't, not, not unless this debt ceiling is combined with some path to balancing our budget...

MR. GREGORY: All right. Well, let me ask you specifically about that. Where would--do you think the American people have to be prepared for sacrifice? Which part of the budget, knowing that there's only 15 percent that's nondiscretionery, or that's real--nondefense discretionary part of the budget, what are you going to target for cuts?

SEN. DeMINT: ...First of all, we just need to return to pre-Obama levels of spending in 2008. We need to cut earmarks...We need to defund Obamacare, and then we need to look at the entitlement programs, such as the way Paul Ryan has done in the House with his road maps to America's future...

MR. GREGORY: But let me just...

SEN. DeMINT: ...but we can cut spending.

MR. GREGORY: Let me just stop you. I want to be very, very, very specific because going back to 2008 spending levels will not get anywhere close to balancing the budget. So you're saying that everything has to be on the table--cuts in defense, cuts in Medicare, cuts in Social Security. Is that right?

SEN. DeMINT: Well, no, we're not talking about cuts in Social Security....

MR. GREGORY: But then, but where, but where do you make the cuts? I mean, if you're protecting everything for those, the most potent political groups like seniors who go out and vote, where are you really going to balance the budget?

SEN. DeMINT: Well, look at Paul Ryan's road map to the future...We can restore sanity in Washington without cutting any benefits to seniors or veterans.

Upon first glance, Gregory appears to be forcing DeMint to back up his claims with specifics, but in truth, we're just scratching the surface. The Senator references Rep. Paul Ryan's plans, but isn't asked to explain its details. Gregory (laudably) notes that non-defense spending constitutes merely a fraction of all discretionary spending, but when DeMint revealingly omits defense from his list of cuts, Gregory failed to ask why. Finally, DeMint makes a show of his support for Social Security, but he isn't asked to square this position with his previous denunciation of government-run programs. Digging deeper on these points would have revealed how DeMint structures his opinions, but the audience is left without answers.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you a final question about 2012. Who's got the inside track for president, and do you think tea party forces--yourself, Sarah Palin--have an inside track moving forward?

SEN. DeMINT: Well, I think the, the, the voters have the inside track here. I think the citizen activism is going to change politics...

The interview ends with a discussion, once again, of a political horse-race, this one concerning an election two full years away.

---End of Interview ---

Let me conclude by noting that I don't believe this interview was entirely without merit. Indeed, forcing Senator DeMint, a newly empowered leader of the GOP, to state his priorities is valuable information for voters to have. However, what was missing from this interview - and what is missing from so many political interviews - was a journalist who forced their interviewee to reveal the facts and analysis that led them to hold their opinions. Simply put, we must insist on factual accountability in interviews like this one if we hope to restore reason to our political discourse.