Minutes after voters in Iowa had deadlocked on two candidates, MSNBC's political mastermind Chris Matthews was shocked — shocked. Sure, Mitt Romney had come out of nowhere to tie another upstart, Rick Santorum, but the mouthy host declared that Mr. Romney, the GOP front-runner, had failed to get more than 25 percent of the vote.
"The Republican Party has a problem it's had for 60 years. It's got a battle between what they used to call the primitives and the establishment. And the primitives right now are reflected in, obviously, the Romney vote — I'm sorry, in the Ron Paul vote, and of course the Santorum vote," he said, stumbling and stuttering.
"There's something wrong with Mitt Romney and the Republican base. They're rejecting him like tissue rejection, rejecting some new organ in the body," the host said, declaring that Mr. Romney's winning 25 percent of the vote meant that 75 percent of votes had rejected the former governor!
Brilliant. But wrong. Again. It's Iowa — Iowa is always that way. You only have to go back to the 2008 Democratic primary, when the top three vote-getters in the state went 35 percent, 31 percent, 30 percent. There are always three tickets out of Iowa — always. The state's sole purpose is to winnow the field — New Hampshire actually decides who'll win. A 10th grader in Des Moines knows that.
And so it has gone, with the media embarrassing itself throughout the already lengthy GOP nominating process — including Saturday night's debate, perhaps the most embarrassing of the whole ordeal. Former Clintonite George Stephanopoulos and the ever-squinty Diane Sawyer broke new ground in surreal absurdity, defending President Obama, attacking candidates with spurious numbers (often put out by the Democratic National Committee) and asking ridiculous questions.
To wit: Mr. Stephanopoulos asked the former Massachusetts governor if he thinks states have the right to ban contraception (never mind the economy, the belligerence of Iran — let's get to the most pressing issue).
"So you're asking, given the fact that there's no state that wants to do so, you are asking could it constitutionally be done? We could ask our constitutionalist here," Mr. Romney said, pointing to Ron Paul. The audience burst into laughter.
"George, I don't know whether the state has the right to ban contraception. No state wants to. The idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no state wants to do is kind of a silly thing, I think."
The former senior adviser to Mr. Clinton, taking a page right out of the DNC playbook, asked Mr. Romney about his tenure as governor.
"Now, there have been questions about that calculation of 100,000 jobs. ... I've read some analysts who look at it and say that you're counting the jobs that were created but not counting the jobs that were taken away. Is that accurate?" What analysts? Who? Oh, never mind, you sticklers for facts.
"No, it's not accurate," Mr. Romney said. "It includes the net of both. I'm a good enough numbers guy to make sure I got both sides of that."
Miss Sawyer also played Obama cheerleader. "Gov. Romney, we'll begin with you. We just saw 200,000 new jobs created last month, and there are optimists who say this is the signal that this economy is finally turning around. Are you with those optimists?"
She then got to another of the top issues weighing on the minds of Americans: civil unions. Somebody named Josh McElveen, oddly also at the debate moderators' table, followed: "We have a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. What happens to the 1,800 families who have married here? Are their marriages basically illegitimate at this point?" Millions of Americans sat breathless in front of their TVs, waiting for the crucial answer, which would no doubt be the single most important factor in deciding their vote.
Squinting, with pathos brimming, Miss Sawyer jumped in again to ask Mr. Romney: "In human terms, what would you say to them?" Luckily, being human, Mr. Romney was able to answer using human terms.
Even more pressing, from the guy named McElveen: "If you traveled up I-93 from Boston, I-93 North, you probably went over what was a widening project that's going on. We're about $350 million away from getting this project completed. And a lot of people here think that this is a very important project to ..."
At that moment, 10 million TVs flipped from the debate to the NFL playoff game. To watch a game that was already over — like the media's turn at picking presidential candidates.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.