Clean Sweep? ABC’s Stephanopoulos Spins for Democratic Debaters

In his 1999 memoir, “All Too Human,” George Stephanopoulos defined good spin as “a hope dressed up as an observation.” Starting with the 2000 election, however, Stephanopoulos (supposedly) abandoned the role of paid spinner that he filled during Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, instead offering his expert opinion as an analyst and anchor for ABC News.

But a review finds Stephanopoulos’s campaign-year “observations” seem a whole lot like the spin he used to peddle when he worked for the Clintons. So far this election year, as my colleague Brent Baker has chronicled, Stephanopoulos the neutral pundit has declared Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden the winners of the first three debates.

Does anyone want to bet against him going four-for-four?

He declared Obama the winner after the first debate on September 26:

Bottom line, the winner is Barack Obama. He comes into this race where the country wants change. His number one goal was to show that he belonged on that stage. He was a credible commander-in-chief, that he could hold his own on national security. He did that tonight. He gets the win.

He applauded Biden after the vice presidential debate on October 2:

What was Joe Biden’s strategy? It was clearly, he was going to debate John McCain tonight. He was not going to debate Sarah Palin. And he was going to do everything he could to say that John McCain would be a continuation of George W. Bush’s presidency. That is the fundamental strategy of the Obama campaign, and Joe Biden hit it in every single answer tonight. He was coherent, he was consistent.

And after the second presidential debate on October 7:

Obama is two for two....He definitely won tonight. I think, again, he showed over the course of this debate, over the course of the two debates, he is answering the number one question Americans have about him. Does he have the experience it takes to serve effectively as President? Over the course now of three hours of debates, he is answering that question minute by minute.

A look back at the last two presidential campaigns also finds Stephanopoulos tilting in favor of his former Democratic colleagues. Let's start with a look back at Campaign 2004:

■ First Presidential Debate, September 30. Stephanopoulos enthusiastically declared John Kerry the winner over George W. Bush:

Tonight was a big opportunity for Senator Kerry. He was up on the stage as an equal to the President. And over 90 minutes, he gave substantive responses to the charge that the President made. But I wonder if stylistically he helped himself even more than substantively, if by appearing calm and confident, for the most part, during this debate. He answered the flip-flopper charge with his demeanor even more than with his words....I think Senator Kerry has momentum coming out of here. He’ll come out of here and say, ‘Listen, the American people agreed with what I had to say last night, they thought I did a good job,’ and he’s got five more weeks to argue his case.

■ Vice Presidential Debate, October 4. The morning after the debate, on Good Morning America, Stephanopoulos tried to downplay an ABC News snap poll that showed Dick Cheney beating John Edwards, suggesting the debate was really a tie:

It showed Cheney winning 43 to 35, but you’ve got to look underneath the poll a little bit, Charlie. It showed that more Republicans watched the debate than Democrats, by 38 to 31 percent. So Cheney wins the debate by eight percent in our poll, but there were seven percent more Republicans than Democrats. That makes up for most of the difference, although Cheney did do a little bit better with Republicans than Edwards did with Democrats, and I think he needed to do that.

Coming off of President Bush’s debate performance Thursday night, he needed to rally those Republicans, I think he did that. On the other hand, Senator Edwards did what he needed to do for himself. He may want to run for President one day. He showed Democrats he could be tough, but without tarnishing his image.

■ Second Presidential Debate, October 8. Stephanopoulos on Nightline following the debate argued that both Bush and Kerry did well, but proposed that really meant that Kerry won:

My gut tells me that President Bush helped himself personally by having an improved performance, but that Senator Kerry’s campaign is helped more overall because the issues are trending in his direction....He’s the challenger and he’s now had two debates where people have seen him as either a tie or a win. A credible alternative at a time when you’ve had job loss, when a majority of the country thinks we’re going in the wrong direction -- that’s very good news for the challenger.

■ Third Presidential Debate, October 13. The morning after the final debate, Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America argued that Kerry was three for three, and thus favored to win the White House:

What this shows basically is that John Kerry in three debates had three wins even though last night was narrow. And I think that’s the important point: to look at the debates as a whole. If you look at three presidential elections where the challenger has come in behind going into the debates and left ahead -- 1960, 1980, 2000 -- that person went on to win the presidency.

Now, a look back at Campaign 2000:

■ First Presidential Debate, October 3. Working his first debate as an ABC analyst, Stephanopoulos was enthusiastic for Al Gore. Talking about the debate that Saturday Night Live would later mock for Gore’s heavy sighing, Stephanopoulos gushed to anchor Peter Jennings:

Gore dominated the debate, Peter. You know, all year long he’s been trailing Governor Bush on the issue of who’s the strongest leader. Well, tonight Gore not only took up most of the time, most of the time was spent on the issues that he has the biggest advantage on, most particularly prescription drugs....It was even the way that he would interrupt Jim Lehrer and say, ‘Listen, I want one more word.’ He looked like he was dominating, and then again, the issues that the time was spent on -- prescription drugs, education, Social Security, even the RU-486 and abortion issue. All of those favor Gore.

Later on Nightline, Stephanopoulos kept up the spin:

There wasn’t a single issue, with perhaps the exception of the energy question, where Gore lost on points over the course of the 90 minutes. He was strong, he was detailed, he was specific, and he posed questions to Bush that Bush left on the table. My guess is also on the issue of foreign policy, Bush was quite shaky, particularly when he was talking about military readiness, when he was talking about the situation in Serbia right now. Gore actually corrected him. Yes, Gore was too much of a know-it-all, a little too arrogant, but I think that people in the end were looking at the substance and the specifics, and on that, Gore won.

■ Vice Presidential Debate, October 5. Confronted with a quickie poll showing Cheney beating Joe Lieberman by a 43-24 percent margin, Stephanopoulos gave both sides equal credit:

I think they both have elevated their tickets’ position, which means it’s a wash. I think that, Peter, this debate is going to played in college debate classes for years as a model debate. Both candidates were solid and substantive and funny. Both were what debate coaches call appropriately aggressive on policy, and I think they both shored up -- Cheney shored up one of Bush’s weaknesses, a sense of gravitas. Joe Lieberman warmed up Al Gore a little bit.

■ Second Presidential Debate, October 11. Immediately after the debate, Stephonopoulos suggested Bush won: “I thought it was a very strong night for Governor Bush. I mean, Al Gore did do fine; he lowered down the ticks. But the fact that the first 40 minutes of the debate was on foreign policy, I think, really helped Bush.”

But the next morning on Good Morning America, Stephanopoulos revised his assessment, criticizing Bush for a claim he made about Gore’s connection with a corrupt ex-Prime Minister of Russia:

[Bush] did look strong here and this looked like a high point in the debate for Governor Bush, but on second thought, it looks like he also got some of his facts wrong. Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, while he did get wealthy through the state energy concern, there’s no evidence at all that he siphoned money off from the International Monetary Fund. Bush probably brought it up because Gore was chairman of a commission with Chernomyrdin, so he wanted to tie them together, but this looks like an example of what Gore has been criticized of in the past, a case where Governor Bush is stretching the facts to make a political point.

■ Third Presidential Debate, October 17. With the liberal media defensive over Gore’s frequent misstatements of fact, Stephanopoulos leaped to accuse Bush of making an inaccurate charge:

Gore seemed to know some of Bush’s proposals and facts about his record better than Bush did himself, and they’ll point out that many of Bush’s charges against Gore, most specifically on his spending proposals, are inaccurate....I think there’s a chance he may have lost some ground because when Gore was questioned about it, he was able to say quite firmly Bush’s charges are absolutely wrong, and I do believe that Gore will be right, that when the charge that Bush, that Gore spends three times as much as President Clinton is analyzed, it will seem to be more of a partisan analysis than an impartial analysis.

More of a partisan analysis than an impartial analysis? Sounds like our George.

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