We expect our political pundits to be masters of campaign history, but that isn't always the case. On The Early Show on CBS this morning, newly arrived political correspondent/analyst Jeff Greenfield ended his story on the Democratic debate by telling co-host Harry Smith, "this was, by far, the earliest presidential debate in the history of our political system. You want to know how early? A child conceived last night would be a month old before the people of South Carolina got to vote in their primary."
You don't have to know ancient history to know Greenfield's wrong. In the last election cycle, Democrats held a very early debate in South Carolina just like this one -- on Saturday, May 3, about a week after this one on the calendar. Greenfield analyzed it for CNN on the May 5, 2003 American Morning:
HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Now, the gloves are off. The Democrats who would be president took aim at George Bush and one another in South Carolina nearly nine months before the state's primary. When the nine announced candidates met Saturday night, it marked the earliest formal televised debate in presidential election history...Now, this is obviously incredibly early. Is there any way we can look at this and see who might be a front runner here?
JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. And if that's how anybody's looking for this, you know, the who won, who lost, I think it is ridiculously early. And nine candidates do make for an unruly format, though I think Stephanopoulos handled it well.
Greenfield said almost exactly the same thing about last night's debate. When Harry Smith asked if there was a "particular beneficiary" of the debate, he said "Not in my view." But his presentation of candidate quotes seemed largely (perhaps with the exception of John Edwards) to designed to make the candidates more moderate and appealing to voters:
There's no doubt about the winning moment of last night's MSNBC debate. Here's Brian Williams asking Delaware Senator Joe Biden about his famed long windedness.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?
SENATOR JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Yes. [Laughter]
GREENFIELD: This was strategized, I assume? If you had the chance-
BIDEN: No, I gave him my word it wasn't.
GREENFIELD: And there was no doubt about who was trying to draw the clearist distinction with the others. Here's New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on gun rights.
GOVERNOR BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM): I'm a westerner, I'm a governor of New Mexico. The Second Amendment is precious in the west. But, I want to just state for the record -- a vast, vast majority of gun owners are law abiding.
GREENFIELD: Nor was it surprising that Senator Clinton, as the first woman with the serious chance of becoming president, would be eager to demonstrate a sense of firmness in the event of a new terrorist attack.
SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.
GREENFIELD: There were other highlights. Former senator John Edwards, still answering questions about his $400 haircut.
JOHN EDWARDS: But if the question is, Brian, whether I live a privileged and blessed lifestyle now, the answer to that's yes, a lot of us do. But it's not where I come from. And I've not forgotten where I come from.
GREENFIELD: And here's Senator Barack Obama on his biggest mistake, not fighting harder to stop the Congress from getting involved in the Terri Schiavo case.
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): And I think I should have stayed in the Senate and fought more for making sure that families make those decisions and not bureaucrats and politicians.
Here at the end is where Greenfield's erratic history lesson came in.