Rachel Maddow: The calm at the center of MSNBC’s debate coverage storm

Last night, nerds ran wild and free as Rachel Maddow and friends kicked off their coverage of first of a series of Presidential debates leading up to the 2012 election.

The debate was moderated by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer. Well, “moderated” in the roughly the same sense that a lone plastic bag “moderates” the speed of freeway traffic. Maddow noted both the absence of the firm hand on the tiller and the failures of the debate structure, which was long chunks of time devoted to particular topic areas, with first an answer and then a response and then a rebuttal and then Mitt Romney interrupting and talking whenever he wanted.

“I personally do not know who won this debate,” said Maddow as they switched from the event proper to Punditland, “I do think that we saw this debate format die a very painful death on camera tonight.”

Good. Bury it in a crossroads with garlic stuffed in its mouth so that it may never rise again.


After describing President Obama as “professorial and explanatory” and Romney as “more amped,” Rachel also noted that Romney was on the attack, but there were few if any direct attacks from Obama.

But mostly she and the MSNBC team she helmed were stunned. Mitt Romney spent gobsmackingly long chunks of the debate just flat-out lying, but that wasn’t what they were stunned by. Romney is sociopathically good at lying, and does it all the time. Indeed, his campaign seems to rely on low-information voters who either only absorb pro-Romney news sources that never seem to get around to issuing corrections or who don’t watch or read news at all, but sure do like shiny hair.

So no one was surprised by the fact that Romney spent much of the debate misrepresenting his own policy positions, repeating old, long-debunked lies about death panels, and contradicting things he said just days ago. Romney lies so often that it is no longer treated as news.

What blew the minds of the MSNBC team was that Obama didn’t call him on it.

Which is a weird place to be in, now that MSNBC (well, the evening team at MSNBC) has pretty much settled into admitting that they’re rooting for Obama. Suddenly pundits all over the other stations were claiming that Romney had won the debate, in spite of the fact that he was at times using “facts” so false he might as well have been pulling them straight from the rear ends of dressage centaurs.

Winning the debate is no longer about making good points based on true things about the world, or even the things a candidate believes about the world. Romney is said to have “won” because he smiled and looked confident while lying, and because Obama failed to Hulk out and nail him to the wall. And the whole thing was a wee bit frustrating.

(I know this clip doesn’t have enough Rachel in it, but it’s worth it for the freakout.)


What I’m saying is that the debate caused Rachel’s team a certain amount of consternation.

(Except for unctuous Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, an unfortunately frequent presence on Maddow’s show and on MSNBC’s political coverage in general. I know the MSNBC team needs Republicans who will actually talk to them, but really? This guy? Schmidt is always transparently looking for his next campaign gig, so he almost never expresses actual human thoughts – he just oozes the party line. Case in point: Schmidt led off the night by claiming that Obama is “not used to being challenged,” which is patently ridiculous. Obama has been getting zero cooperation from Republicans in Congress since he got elected, and one of them even shouted an insult at him during a State of the Union address. It’s Romney who goes angerball when someone, say, a teacher, goes above his or her station by speaking up to him. Later in the evening, purgatorial Republican TV presence Rudy Giuliani used almost the exact same phrasing when he too claimed that Obama wasn’t used to being challenged. Come on, fellas – the dog-whistle “Obama is arrogant” message is odious enough. At least bother to flip through a thesaurus after you’ve agreed on the talking points.)

Maddow, as always, tried to keep things civil, calm, and focused, and helpfully rattled off a list of things that were not covered in this domestic policy debate. (Warning: This list will make you throw office supplies across the room. Try to choose the ones that are less pointy and/or breakable.)

·    Mitt Romney’s 47% remarks
·    Immigration
·    Union rights
·    Women’s rights
·    Bain Capitol
·    Abortion
·    Romney’s jobs record in Massachussetts, even though Romney kept bringing up his gubernatorial record in Massachusetts

Maddow noted that Romney “rolled over the format” of the debate and avoided all his weakest subjects, and discussed more of the lying with her colleague Lawrence O’Donnell.


Though a good deal of her formidable talents were used in bouncing between her team and guests and keeping things relatively sane, Maddow maintained her smart-yet-cheery demeanor and came up with what was by far the best political metaphor of the night as she described Romney’s claim that his tax plan wasn’t really his tax plan and that his plan won’t do what all human math indicates it will do:

“I’m going to paint this house blue. But when I’m done, the house is not going to be blue. ‘Wait a second! You’re going to paint the house blue! That means the house is going to be blue!’ No, I said I was going to paint the house, and the house will not be blue.

…And when that works, that’s a bad debate.”

If you have read this far, you have been very wonky and very good, so here is Rachel nerding out with political writer (and her occasional fill-in host) Ezra Klein.


There are three debates to go. Courage.