05/12/2008 11:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Russert Watch, 4-27-08: In Which Tim and Team Play Inside Baseball

[From the Columbia Journalism Review]

This week, Tim Russert, the national handicapper-in-chief, brought Howard Dean onto Meet the Press and tried to coax him to “focus on this unity question”—to prognosticate about the outlook for an end to the Democratic race. Dean crisply repeated what he’d already said many times: He wanted the contest over by the end of June. Russert tried to draw Dean into making some news about tactics, but Dean was smack dab on message: he upholds the rules. The rules are the rules. And by the way, superdelegates are delegates too; they represent voters.

The most Russert got was this declaration: “I'm not the most important person in terms of bringing the party together. The most important person is the person who doesn't win the nomination.” And then Dean was back to his preferred Democratic mantras: “People want change in this country….John McCain is four more years of George Bush….You know, we're spending a lot of time on process, and I think most Americans care about whether they want to be in Iraq or not for a hundred years, about the economy, about health care.”

Russert tried to steer back to process: “But the Democrats are very worried about who's going to be the nominee and whether or not the result will reflect the primary process.” Dean parried: “The reason Democrats are so interested in this is they want change.”

The color commentator was stymied. As hard as he tried to get Dean to declare that Hillary Clinton’s prospects were dim, Dean wouldn’t play. What would black Americans do, Russert asked, if superdelegates deprived Barack Obama of the nomination? Dean refused the invitation, saying, “We don’t divide people…in this party.” Russert was reduced to sitting by while Dean blithely went on rat-a-tatting his talking points about McCain’s weaknesses. After a while, his efforts to nudge Dean off message begin to seem perfunctory. Little was revealed.

I sometimes wonder whether the custodians of commentary realize how little they move the conventional wisdom when they deplore its inadequacies. Consider this interesting moment with Gwen Ifill on Russert’s roundtable. “One of the most amazing things about Pennsylvania is…how little they were being told about the things they care about; how much there was not a debate about the war that happened during the Pennsylvania primary….” Ifill seemed ready to embark on an audacious effort to suggest that voters care about what the next president will do. But instantly, she stepped on her own audacity by drifting off into this haze:

…how much Barack Obama, in trying to chase after voters in places like Scranton and Steelton, where I once lived… I'm telling you, he wasn't going to win in Steelton and only made one big appearance in Philadelphia, where his base was. His theory, up until now, had been, ‘Run up my numbers in the places where I'm strong. But he, only Friday night before the election, had a big, one big rally in Philadelphia, while the Clintons were running rings around him in the suburbs, where he was supposed to be strong, and he didn't do as well as he was supposed to. So there's something...It seems like that campaign gets thrown off balance when Hillary Clinton sets the table for where they ought to be and what they ought to say. But what gets lost—as we slice up the electorate into the, you know, the white working class and the black middle class, and however else we're slicing it today—is what these people want to hear, what these voters want to hear. And the Democrats seem, for the moment, to have lost the issue debate.

Talk about losing the “issue debate”—There’s no here here, only shoptalk, inside dope ,and self-preoccupation. On Meet the Press, even journalists who aspire to honor “the things [voters] care about” can’t stay on point.

The host seemed most animated when he declared, apropos the question of whether Obama and Clinton would debate again: “I always enjoy debates about debates.” His relish was obvious. He licked his chops. At another point, Slate’s John Dickerson noted about McCain: “He’s made a lot of mistakes talking about the economy, but it doesn’t get talked about.”

What’s with the passive voice? Why not try out the active? Why not talk about those “mistakes”? Later, Russert asked, “Are we going to have a debate in November about past associations and pastors, or we going to have a debate about the war, health care, and economy?” As if the preoccupations of the knights of the Meet the Press roundtable have nothing to do with the answer.