At some point in the past decade or so, CNN’s domestic network pivoted from news programs to talk shows. Where once CNN’s anchors called on the cable network’s impressively wide network of domestic and foreign correspondents to provide reporting and analysis, they now convene in-studio Council of Trent-size panels that regurgitate talking points and issue spin. It’s a 24-hour punditry channel, not a news station.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that when CNN’s anchors occasionally encounter actual newsmakers, as they did at this week’s Democratic presidential debates in Detroit, they don’t quite know how to handle it.
If these debates have any public utility at all, it’s to provide Americans with a sense of what these potential presidents would do if elected. But CNN’s anchors asked questions seemingly designed for the endless succession of “Democratic strategists” or “Republican strategists” who populate its regular programming rather than potential presidents.
Jake Tapper was the worst offender. At Tuesday’s debate, the first of the two, his questions required the candidates to behave as pundits rather than potential presidents.
For instance, Mr. Tapper asked several questions about Sen. Bernard Sanders’ proposal to ban private health insurance under his “Medicare for All” plan. But rather than query the candidates about the feasibility or affordability or wisdom of such an idea, he was preoccupied by the politics of the matter. Is Medicare for All “political suicide?” he asked. As a result, the candidates largely shied away from arguing the merits and instead jousted about which plan was likely to be the most successful at the ballot box, an unedifying spectacle.
Later, in a segment ostensibly devoted to environmental policy, Mr. Tapper again repaired to the superficial subject of electability.
Is Mr. Sanders “too extreme to beat President Trump?” he asked former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Mr. Tapper then wasted huge amounts of airtime asking candidates to sum up their supposed viability as presidential candidates rather than as presidents. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio was asked about how he can win back a state that Barack Obama won twice only for Mr. Trump to win it in 2016. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was asked about his election to the post while Mr. Trump won that state’s presidential election by 20 percentage points.
The only highlight in this interminable segment was when former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas made the novel argument of pointing to his unsuccessful Senate bid in 2018 as an argument in favor of his electability. That was a new one.
Even when the topic was foreign policy, Mr. Tapper managed to impose a superficial, electorally focused frame. Rather than drill down on Mr. Sanders’ foreign policy vision, for instance, he asked whether it would play in Peoria. “If voters are hearing the same message from you and President Trump on the issue of military intervention, how should they expect that you will be any different from him?” Mr. Tapper asked.
What would happen if Jake Tapper were to interview a foreign leader? “Chairman Kim, how do you think your decision to launch a nuclear attack on Tokyo is playing out in Wonsan province? Might it hurt your bid to secure another term as chair of the Korean Workers’ Party?”
The greatest irony, of course, is that after 2016, news readers like Mr. Tapper continue to ask questions about electability. After all, how many times did each of them declare flat-out that the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was unelectable?
⦁ Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.