You do all kinds of dubious things when you're promoting a book. But when my publisher suggested that I accept an invitation to appear on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes," I was a bit skeptical. I've been on O'Reilly a few times over the years, and have stopped doing it, because these people play with such a stacked deck. They control the format, the timing, they flat-out lie, and they're rude as hell. Even if you win the debate, you're lending credibility to a propaganda act.
But I figured that it might be useful to hone my arguments against the nastiest possible audience, and might sell a book or two in the process.
Things started off well, when Alan Colmes, in his usual role of ineffectual and half-hearted liberal, played it fairly straight. Holmes asked if the election was turning into the Palin-McCain narrative-the soccer mom and war hero--versus the Democrats on the economic issues. I countered that the Democrats couldn't just talk issues; they had to have their own narrative:
If people vote on whether Sarah Palin is better at shooting a moose, the Democrats are toast. And if Obama and Biden can bring the election back to the fact that the Republicans have had their shot at experimenting with letting Wall Street go nuts and it's really harmed ordinary people, then the election turns on the economy and the Democrats win. So this is a fight about whether the election is about culture or about pocketbook issues...a narrative of the ordinary, hard-working family just getting the short end of the stick: everything from subprime to health insurance to your pension blowing up, of your job not being secure. That's a narrative that affects ordinary people. If that narrative is persuasive, the Democrats win.
I added that Obama might be in a little trouble because he was still trying to be high-minded and "post-partisan," at a time when the campaign was turning nasty. At that point, Hannity, sitting on my other side, came unglued.
"Oh, stop it, stop it, "he spat. "This is garbage you're spewing here."
I told him that he would get his turn in a minute, and that I hadn't come on his show to be insulted. "This is a pro-Obama book!" he hissed, as if his producers had tricked him.
Hannity then want on a rant about how wonderfully the economy was performing under the Republicans, and what lies I was telling by terming economic conditions dire.
If you can persuade the American people that the average family is doing great, your guy deserves to win the election. But I don't think the American people are that stupid. People's health insurance is going up in smoke, people's pensions are going up in smoke, people's jobs are being exported to China, unemployment is 6.1% and rising, the administration is bailing out Wall Street because of Republican deregulation... If you think the economy is great, you campaign on that.
Hannity then accused Obama, and me, of wanting to increase public spending by over a trillion dollars. I replied that it probably would take more than that to get the economy out of the hole that conservative policies had dug-and that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson seemed to have no trouble spending a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to rescue Wall Street, but not to help ordinary people.
At that point, Hannity looked into the camera and declared that it was time for the next guest, Jordin Sparks, the American Idol winner! Colmes limply shook my hand. Hannity didn't even give me a parting sneer. I sure hope they don't invite me back, and I think the risk is fairly small. Watch it for yourself.
Conclusion: I think the show was worth doing; it was fun telling Hannity what a fool he is. I'm reasonably articulate at talking about economic issues, and I don't like bullies. However, I'm no politician, and Barack Obama at his best is a terrific one. But if I can credibly push back against the Palin-McCain narrative, deep in hostile territory, by turning the subject back to people's pocketbooks, Obama should be able to eat the right's lunch.
Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect and Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, has just published Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (Chelsea Green). He is blogging daily about the election and the economic crisis at www.obamaschallenge.com.