Wrong on the substance and the style

At Democratic debate, moderator Gibson flubbed key facts.

By Steve Benen

Published April 17, 2008 2:00PM (EDT)

Following up on the last item about last night's Democratic debate, the problem was not just that moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos devoted more than half the event to process, trivia, and gotcha questions, it's that the shift to substantive issues wasn't much better.

The first 50 or so minutes remained safely on conservative ground, emphasizing various political controversies that Republicans want to talk about. But the rest of the debate also, oddly enough, seemed to have been run through a Republican filter. As Josh Marshall put it: "[T]he questions upon which the candidates were pressed the most were ones that presumed the correctness of Republican agenda items, sometimes explicitly so -- on taxes, capital gains taxes, gun rights, Iraq, etc."

Quite right. For example, Gibson seemed especially animated about capital gains tax rates.

"You have however said you would favor an increase in the capital gains tax. As a matter of fact, you said on CNBC, and I quote, 'I certainly would not go above what existed under Bill Clinton, which was 28 percent.' It's now 15 percent. That's almost a doubling if you went to 28 percent. But actually Bill Clinton in 1997 signed legislation that dropped the capital gains tax to 20 percent. And George Bush has taken it down to 15 percent.

"And in each instance, when the rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down. So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?"

When Obama explained why a rate increase would be fair, Gibson followed up with his dissatisfaction: "But history shows that when you drop the capital gains tax, the revenues go up."

I don't necessarily mind this style of confrontational questions, but it's important under the circumstances for moderators to have their facts straight. In this case, Gibson was just wrong, pressing Obama on a mistaken premise.

When wrapping up, Gibson told viewers that he thought he'd run a "fascinating debate." I'm glad he thought so, because I don't imagine anyone else agreed.

Steve Benen

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