In hindsight, last night’s presidential debate was doomed before Wolf Blitzer started his opening dramatic monologue.
To begin with, the co-hosts of the debate — CNN and the Tea Party Express — made one of the oddest political matches in recent memory. The idea of a cable news network reviled by the far-right coming together with its fiercest critics to host anything is completely ludicrous. Clearly, someone along the way thought: “Hey, that’s so crazy, it just might work.”
How wrong they were. Instead of remaking itself into a network of noble, cooperative centrists, CNN just looked like a sell-out, pandering to Tea Partiers and Tea Party haters in one fell swoop. Blitzer, the moderator, totally lost control of the conversation by the end of the first segment, apparently thrown off by the rowdy crowd. Plus, he kept having to rephrase audience-submitted queries like “How will you get rid of illegals?” into something resembling actual policy questions.
To top it off, the debate was overproduced and gimmicky, from the weird WWE-style intro (Michele Bachmann…The Firebrand, Rick Perry…The Newcomer, Ron Paul…The Libertarian) to the cheesy lightning round to help us “get to know” the candidates by asking them the White House equivalent of the desert island question.
But while CNN was the clear loser last night, the Tea Party managed to come out on top. Still viewed by many as a fringe movement, the Tea Party took the most Establishment of political institutions — the presidential debate — and made it their own. The crowd was boisterous and fervently partisan, and had no qualms about showing the candidates how they felt about any particular answer.
Their overall message was clear: The Wolf Blitzers of the world come and go, but any Republican contender who wants a shot at the White House is going to have to get through the Tea Party guys first.
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