Paul Krugman on the Debates

Paul Krugman is concerned about the lack of fact checking by the media after the debates. “Mitt Romney completely misrepresented how we ended up in Iraq. Later, Mike Huckabee mistakenly claimed that it was Ronald Reagan’s birthday.” The media cared more about Huckabee’s less significant error than Romney’s:

Asked whether we should have invaded Iraq, Mr. Romney said that war could only have been avoided if Saddam “had opened up his country to I.A.E.A. inspectors, and they’d come in and they’d found that there were no weapons of mass destruction.” He dismissed this as an “unreasonable hypothetical.”

Except that Saddam did, in fact, allow inspectors in. Remember Hans Blix? When those inspectors failed to find nonexistent W.M.D., Mr. Bush ordered them out so that he could invade. Mr. Romney’s remark should have been the central story in news reports about Tuesday’s debate. But it wasn’t.

This reminds Krugman of a debate between George Bush and Al Gore:

You may not remember the presidential debate of Oct. 3, 2000, or how it was covered, but you should. It was one of the worst moments in an election marked by news media failure as serious, in its way, as the later failure to question Bush administration claims about Iraq.

Throughout that debate, George W. Bush made blatantly misleading statements, including some outright lies — for example, when he declared of his tax cut that “the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.” That should have told us, right then and there, that he was not a man to be trusted.

But few news reports pointed out the lie. Instead, many news analysts chose to critique the candidates’ acting skills. Al Gore was declared the loser because he sighed and rolled his eyes — failing to conceal his justified disgust at Mr. Bush’s dishonesty. And that’s how Mr. Bush got within chad-and-butterfly range of the presidency.

Krugman didn’t find any errors as serious in the Democratic debate, but:

Still, someone should have called Hillary Clinton on her declaration that on health care, “we’re all talking pretty much about the same things.” While the other two leading candidates have come out with plans for universal (John Edwards) or near-universal (Barack Obama) health coverage, Mrs. Clinton has so far evaded the issue. But again, this went unmentioned in most reports.

By the way, one reason I want health care specifics from Mrs. Clinton is that she’s received large contributions from the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Will that deter her from taking those industries on?

Krugman was disasppointed that the media declared winners not based upon substance, but on how the candidates came across:

Thus most analysts declared Mrs. Clinton the winner in her debate, because she did the best job of delivering sound bites — including her Bush-talking-point declaration that we’re safer now than we were on 9/11, a claim her advisers later tried to explain away as not meaning what it seemed to mean.

Similarly, many analysts gave the G.O.P. debate to Rudy Giuliani not because he made sense — he didn’t — but because he sounded tough saying things like, “It’s unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror.” (Why?)

Krugman warns that candidates should be judged by what they say about substantive issues and not superficial character judgments. “Mr. Bush’s tax lies, not his surface amiability, were the true guide to how he would govern.” He fears this country cannot “survive another four years of Bush-quality leadership.”

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