Reflections On The Great 'Debate vs. Jobs Speech' Scheduling War

Americans have endured a lot of hardships of late -- a terrible economy, massive devastation from the recent hurricanes, whatever it was that Lady Gaga was doing at the VMAs the other night -- so much so that one wonders how they can possibly take on any further burdens. So I sure hope everyone is bearing up well in the wake of Wednesday's grand political debacle. By which I mean, "that time Washington, D.C., nearly imploded because someone scheduled a media event on the same day that some other dudes had already planned a media event."

I speak, of course, of the foofaraw that unfolded yesterday when President Barack Obama asked to address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday to lay out his hotly anticipated jobs plan. See, when Congress went away on its recent recess, Obama went on a mini bus tour, talking about jobs, and pledged to work out a specific plan by Labor Day, which he would announce as soon as Congress was back in session. There was some urgency behind the plan because ... well ... there's this massive, under-reported unemployment crisis going on in America, and there's been no movement on Capitol Hill toward providing a remedy because everyone's spent the bulk of the year dithering around with the debt ceiling. Prior to that, Obama laid out a jobs plan in 2010 (which everyone has conveniently forgotten about) that didn't go anywhere because the Democrats were in a "pre-election panic" and had sent in their punting unit.

So the time for a plan was again nigh, and the parameters of the promise Obama made were to have something in front of the public by Labor Day, after Congress returned from recess. That left three possible days -- Sept. 7, Sept. 8 and Sept. 9. Delay it any further and you break the "by Labor Day" promise and cable news fills up with pundits criticizing you! So the White House asked to address Congress on Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 8 o'clock.

Everyone immediately freaked out! You see, that particular evening there was already a scheduled political infotainment event -- the NBC News/Politico GOP debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. And it was a super-important debate, because it was the first one in which everyone's shiny new candidate, Rick Perry, would be participating.

Was there a bit of gamesmanship involved in the decision to run up on the scheduled debate? Perhaps! At the same time, there's no chance that anyone would tune in to a televised speech on a Friday night, and Thursday night was the scheduled kickoff of the National Football League's 2011-12 season -- an event that, unlike a political debate, is something that ordinary Americans actually enjoy.

Perhaps the White House made the request out of urgency. Perhaps it was a decision intended to be cheeky. Maybe President Obama just wanted there to be a fighting chance that someone would use the words "middle class" on the teevee on Wednesday night! Regardless, a maelstrom of hype and pettiness ensued. House Speaker John Boehner sent a stern letter, in which he came up with some fake reasons for issuing the unprecedented denial of a president's request to address Congress. Michele Bachmann cried conspiracy. Ron Paul mulled using his congressional privileges to put a stop to it. And all the news people stopped whatever it was they were doing and spent the rest of the day talking about this. The debate sponsors decided that having their event bigfooted was a good thing, because they were getting some attention from everyone. And what's really important? Solving the unemployment crisis. Getting attention for your televised infotainment event.

In the end, the White House relented and opted to address Congress on Thursday, Sept. 8. The president is thus poised to receive a fusillade of criticism that he is a football-hating elitist, but at the very least, the terrible controversy that gripped America's media and political elites was, at last, averted. But what's the Real Talk Bottom Line here? Well, I'm glad you asked!

Let's face it: Who cares about another debate?

Yes, I'm sympathetic to the fact that NBC News and Politico have done a lot of work to sponsor a televised debate. But if the debate sponsors are happy getting stepped on, why worry about it? There's nothing in all the world that prevents these events from happening on the same night. The time of the debate can be moved. And TiVo: it exists. What's more is that if Obama is laying out a jobs plan the same day, it gives the debate moderators a chance to ask the GOP candidates to respond to it. And in so doing, they would put the unemployment issue front and center. When you think about it, the fact that the debate organizers were so sanguine about the logistical conflict makes sense -- it was actually a potential win-win situation. Considering the organizers' unoffended reaction, I think most of the media hype over this whole matter stemmed from the fact that no one wanted to have to cover two big political events that night.

Beyond that, who gives a tinned turd? Right now, there are an unholy number of debates scheduled for the rest of the year. There are several debates scheduled to happen between now and the end of October. This NBC/Politico debate is just one more part of the coming blur. And aside from clearing the easy hurdle of staging a better debate than CNN, how will this particular debate distinguish itself from the rest? Absent the chance of bringing in the relevant matter of the Obama jobs plan, it probably won't. The fact that the debate organizers have planted their event among all the others essentially demonstrates that they've got no plans to distinguish themselves in the field of debate organizing. They just want to be part of the giant herd of media organizations that want to murder Americans with too many political debates.

And let's recall that this particular debate has already been moved once. It was originally scheduled for May 2. May 2! And it was announced back in November of 2010. That's just ridiculous. This was far too soon to be planning a debate with the GOP candidates. How premature was it? Well, it was considered big news when Mike Huckabee announced he would not participate. And it was eventually scuttled because by the end of March, there were no serious candidates in the race yet.

If you had come to me in November of 2010 and asked what I thought about planning a GOP debate for the first week of the following May, I would have told you, "My, my. That does not sound to me like the sort of thing that a grown-up should be proposing." So the debate organizers probably deserve to be punished further, for attempting to do something vastly stupid in the first place.

At the same time, do you really expect much from a televised airing of Obama laying out his jobs plan before Congress?

The only reason that Obama is compelled to go to these lengths to lay out a "jobs plan" is because he has to give some satisfaction to the disaffected members of his political base who feel that he doesn't use the "bully pulpit" enough -- the theory being that if Obama does more forceful declaiming, it will somehow "move the needle," create "public pressure" on the GOP and -- bang! pow! -- suddenly his policies are getting enacted all over the place. The thing is, people tend to vastly overrate the power of a piece of presidential oration to rally the public. And beyond that, no one should be laboring under the illusion that the speech will move Obama's political opponents to become amenable to compromise.

The way I see it, there are two scenarios that could play out. The first is: Obama presents some kind of substantive plan for job creation. You know, in principle, that would be great. But if it's some sort of "swing for the fences" plan, House Republicans will block it. If it's some sort of "I've tailored this plan to make it appealing to Republicans" plan, House Republicans ... will block it! (You would think the White House would have learned this by now.) If it's a "all I can do about jobs that doesn't require congressional approval" plan, then why address Congress at all? (Republicans will criticize this, anyway, saying that it bypasses their approval or that it doesn't/won't go far enough to solve the problem.) And if it's a "We're going to form a special bipartisan committee to solve the jobs crisis" plan, then we may as well all go jump off a bridge. (Or, alternatively, we can just stand on a bridge, and let our nation's decaying infrastructure crumble under our feet.)

The second scenario is that the president comes to address Congress with a speech that opts for pleasantries and bromides and urgings and appeals to general principles. Matt Yglesias points out the big flaw in this approach:

The smart move, if you're just going to give a speech for speech's sake, is to make the speech be full of nonsense bromides that voters like to hear. Except one problem President Obama will face is that for a "nonsense bromides" strategy to be maximally effective, it would be really useful for the entire progressive echo chamber to get really excited about his bromide agenda and start loudly insisting that the bromides would be super-successful in reducing unemployment if implemented. But Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, etc. won't do that. A speech full of bromides will be disparaged as bromidish. These are the wages of the "hack gap," the fact that the progressive media ecology is less leadable than the Conintern.

"Consequently," Yglesias adds, "the president will probably try to split the difference in a way that leaves everyone unhappy and sniping at him from all directions." Which brings us back to: "At the same time, do you really expect much from a televised airing of Obama laying out his jobs plan before Congress?" The real best case scenario is for Obama to go all out for a "swing for the fences" approach. It won't get passed through Congress. It won't lead to job creation. But it could be something the Democrats can campaign on in 2012, provided the Democrats aren't still enamored of their punting unit.

Ultimately, Obama might have been better off presenting his "jobs plan" at a town hall populated by the fraternity of 99ers -- those long-term unemployed who need someone with real power to come and acknowledge their existence. They could use a jobs plan right about now. And they vote. Such a presentation would also create a unique event in the world of political media, circa 2011, in that news organizations might be compelled to actually stand in the same room as ordinary Americans, and perhaps even point teevee cameras at them.

In the end, what did we learn from the Great Logistical Kerfuffle of 2011? Well, we've been reminded that everyone in politics and the media is as thin-skinned and as petty as they ever were. I'll give Politico one point for gamely bucking that trend, hand the White House a half-point for creating the circumstances for this reminder in the first place, and deduct 100 points from everyone else involved for relentlessly overhyping this as a matter of national importance. If Howard Kurtz really wants to write a column about the media's tendency to overhype things, this dumb battle over scheduling political events is a much better example of that phenomenon than substantive coverage of a gigantic hurricane was. (But who am I kidding? This "speech vs. debate" nonsense is the sort of bullshit that Kurtz can spend whole weeks talking about.)

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