ABC debate lowlights

Climate: ‘Let’s see if we can go really fast’


By: Julie Hollar and Jim Naureckas

Climate: ‘Let’s see if we can go really fast’

After CNN‘s remarkably substantive and thoughtful town hall on the climate crisis (9/4/19), we wrote that the following debates now had a solid foundation from which to go deeper on climate for a larger audience (FAIR.org9/6/19). Unfortunately, ABC (9/12/19) took it as an opportunity to do even less on the crisis than previous debates.

Only three climate questions were asked, by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. The first, a query to vegan candidate Cory Booker about whether “more Americans [should] follow your diet,” was not even a policy question.

Jorge Ramos
Univision‘s Jorge Ramos asking Cory Booker about veganism.

The second, to Beto O’Rourke, ostensibly came from a viewer: “What meaningful action will you take to reverse the effect of climate change? And can we count on you to follow through if your donors are against it?” While the question appeared to allude to O’Rourke’s history of coziness with the fossil fuel industry, the lack of any further context allowed him to answer it with his boilerplate climate plan language. Shouldn’t we be beyond this by now, after two debates and a town hall?

The candidates were eager to talk more, but ABC apparently felt its work was basically done, as Ramos made clear: “Many of you want to comment. Let’s see if we can go very fast. Senator Klobuchar?” The only remaining question—a brief yes or no, but still perhaps the most substantive of the batch—went to Elizabeth Warren: “Should American foreign policy be based around the principle of climate change?”

Ramos wrapped it up by giving Kamala Harris and then Andrew Yang the floor, and, without being pinned down on any policy in particular, Harris spoke about “courageous leadership” and Yang about giving everyone $100 to give to candidates and causes in order to “wash out the lobbyist cash.”

Foreign policy: ‘Would you put your promise on hold?’

David Muir
ABC‘s David Muir challenging candidates to break their promises to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

In the section reserved for foreign policy and national security issues, the moderators displayed a hawkish agenda, continually pushing the candidates to take a more adversarial and militant line with other countries. This was most obvious in David Muir’s line of questions on Afghanistan, which he prefaced by saying: “Many of you on this stage have said you’d bring the troops home in your first term. Others have said in your first year.” He then asked Warren, “Would you keep that promise to bring the troops home starting right now with no deal with the Taliban?”

When Warren gave the only possible answer to that question—yes—George Stephanopoulos broke in to make it clear that that was the wrong one:

Top US leaders, military leaders on the ground in Afghanistan, told me you can’t do it without a deal with the Taliban. You just said you would, you would bring them home. What if they told you that? Would you listen to their advice?

The same assumption that civilian presidents should normally defer to the judgment of the military was the basis for the next question, to Pete Buttigieg, which cited the authority of Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Joseph Dunford:  “If he’s not even using the word withdrawal, would you put your promise to bring troops home in the first year on hold to follow the advice?”

Joe Biden and Sanders were given versions of the question of whether they would “pull out US troops too quickly from Afghanistan”—meaning after 19 years, which is how long the US would have occupied the country by the time either would be sworn in as president. (See FAIR.org9/11/19, on media’s obsession with a “premature” withdrawal from Afghanistan.)

On Latin America, which as Jorge Ramos noted had not been asked about in the previous debates, the focus was on why Sanders hadn’t called Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a “dictator,” with some gratuitous redbaiting thrown in as the Vermont senator was challenged to distinguish his brand of socialism from that “being imposed” in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. (As Alan MacLeod has noted, “dictator” is a word reserved in US media for governments out of favor with Washington—FAIR.org4/11/19.)

Trade, which was the other major focus of the foreign policy section, was given a similarly bellicose treatment. If Andrew Yang repealed the tariffs imposed by Trump, asked Stephanopoulos, “would you risk losing leverage in our trade relationship with China?” Is Trump right, he asked Buttigieg, that “the Chinese are just going to wait him out so that they can get a Democrat who they can take advantage of”? Julián Castro was reminded that he had previously “identified China as the most serious national security threat to our country.”

Women’s rights: Not on the agenda

The ABC debate was held at Texas Southern University, a historically black university, and the network—explicitly noting this—raised race-related issues second in the debate, after healthcare. What the network seemed to forget was that half of people of color are women, who face issues like access to reproductive healthcare and lack of gender equity to even greater degrees than white women.

For instance, white female full-time workers earn 81.5% of white male earnings; black women earn 65.3% and Hispanic women earn 61.6% of white male earnings. And while white men aged 18–64 average nearly $29,000 in wealth, white women average just over $15,000—but their black and Hispanic female counterparts average $200 and $100, respectively.

But ABC asked exactly zero questions about such issues.


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