Thirty-two years ago in New Hampshire, during a debate among Republican presidential candidates, Gov. Ronald Reagan effectively clinched his party’s nomination for president. The rest, of course, is history. He went on to win the election against a weak and ineffective president in a landslide and ushered in a period of conservative dominance that has continued up to this day.
The pivotal moment for Reagan came when he put an intemperate moderator in his place. “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green,” became known as Reagan’s Nashua moment. The audience reacted with applause, and the nation’s voters identified their next president.
George Stephanopoulos, in a breezy display of immaturity, handed just such an opportunity to Gov. Mitt Romney on Saturday night. Moderator of the Concord debate, he stole a page from his predecessor in Nashua and asked Mr. Romney - not once but twice - the dumbest constitutional question he could think of: Can a state constitutionally ban contraception? Mr. Romney responded, to the enthusiastic applause of the audience, by pointing out how silly the question was, and history was made.
In Mr. Stephanopoulos‘ defense (if there is one), he apparently thought he was asking about the continuing vitality of the Griswold case, decided about 50 years ago. From there, he might have been tempted to move on to Brown v. Board of Education, decided some 60 years ago, and then on to McCullough v. Maryland, decided 190 years ago. Who would have guessed that Mr. Stephanopoulos is such a serious scholar?
Democrats must be wondering whose side he is on, going out of his way to make Mr. Romney look so good. After all, Mr. Romney is the one person on the stage Democrats should fear most, since he is the one who performs the best against President Obama in national polls. Cynics may think it’s because Mr. Stephanopoulos is a Clinton Democrat, and there is no love lost between the Obama and Clinton camps. Perhaps Mr. Stephanopoulos sees himself as Hillary’s vice-presidential pick in a 2016 challenge to President Romney. Far-fetched, granted, but it’s hard to find any other rational explanation for his behavior.
But we digress. As Roger Ailes knows, the American public does not trust the liberal press. They associate it, rightfully, with what they have come to regard as the irresponsibility and unaccountability of Washington itself. They understand that there is an inherent conflict of interest in the relationship. The larger government grows, the greater the perceived role for the liberal press. It’s their ticket to fame and fortune. Witness Mr. Stephanopoulos.
So it has become something of a test for Republican presidential candidates to be able to demonstrate that they are more serious than - and can avoid being influenced or filtered by - the liberal press. After all, in our democracy, no one elects the press to represent them. One of the reasons Reagan was so beloved by so many Americans was that he spoke directly to them with both candor and conviction. As he showed us in Nashua, he was not willing to let the press get in his way.
Warren L. Dean Jr. is a partner at Thompson Coburn and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.