The phrase “town hall” has been so thoroughly abused by cable networks and debate committees over the past few years that it scarcely means anything anymore. What was once a name for a style of meeting or debate is now pretty much shorthand for a woefully scripted event in which serious issues are discussed in the most facile way possible, and always to the benefit of the political position of whoever’s running the show.
The ringmaster, in the case of this past week’s “town hall” meeting on guns, was CNN, a cable network known for its objectivity in the same way Charlie Sheen is known for his sobriety.
The stars of the show, such as it was, were Florida’s senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio.
However, it became clear from the start that while Rubio was actually there for a discussion of policy (a rather futile gesture during an event which the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass described as “CNN’s many minutes of Second Amendment hate”), Nelson was more interested in his chances of getting re-elected in a potential matchup against term-limited Florida Gov. Rick Scott in the fall.
In fact, Nelson was campaigning so hard that he even moved CNN’s Chris Cillizza — who has dedicated many, many minutes of hate to all things Republican — to chastise the senator publicly for his performance.
“At Wednesday night’s town hall on guns, Sen. Marco Rubio was repeatedly pressed — and criticized — by the audience in Sunrise, Florida, for his past defenses of gun rights,” Cillizza wrote.
“But for me, it was Rubio’s Senate colleague — Bill Nelson — who struck the truly sour notes,” he added.
“Nelson, a Democrat running for re-election next fall, seemed to view the town hall — hosted by CNN and moderated by Jake Tapper — as a vehicle to jump-start his campaign against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is widely expected to run against him. No matter the question asked of him, Nelson found a way to make it all about Scott.”
I include those excerpts because anyone familiar with the work of Mr. Cillizza should be truly shocked to see those words coming off of his keyboard. If Nelson’s behavior wasn’t so bad, I would probably instruct CNN security to search their headquarters for a moving burlap sack, in which they would surely find the hog-tied Mr. Cillizza, who had been replaced at his desk by Bill O’Reilly.
The thing is, Nelson actually was that bad.
During the town hall, Nelson fielded a question from Samantha Grady, one of the students who was grazed by a bullet during the Parkland shooting.
“What are you going to do to strengthen background checks, to prevent another tragedy like this from occurring again?” Grady asked.
Nelson began by going off on the “gun show loophole” in Florida’s constitution and “intrusive” background checks that could have caught Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen. But then, as he did not infrequently, Nelson used the opportunity to criticize Scott.
“I want to say that my colleague Senator Rubio and I have a good relationship. We get a lot of stuff done together,” Nelson said.
“And I want you to know that I told him before we came out here tonight that he had guts coming here — when in fact there is no representative of the state of Florida. Our governor did not come here, Gov. Scott — but Marco did.”
Amazingly, not too many people caught onto this — Cillizza and Matt Vespa at (ironically) Townhall.com seemed to be two of the more prominent writers who lambasted Nelson for turning the “town hall” into a paid political advertisement for his campaign. (Didn’t he know this was a paid political advertisement for Everytown for Gun Safety, after all?)
“First off: Where is the empathy?” Cillizza was moved to write. “This kid has been grazed by one bullet and hit by the ricochet of another. She has watched someone close to her murdered. To immediately launch into an esoteric discussion of various laws and constitutional amendments as a way to comfort a grieving teenager is just a massive swing and miss.”
“Second, Nelson’s pivot to praising Rubio as a way to take a shot at Scott is both out of nowhere and totally transparent. ‘Hey, by the way, Marco is great! But Rick Scott is terrible! And he’s not even here!'”
Cillizza noted that Scott was invited, but given that the whole thing was as fixed as an Italian soccer game, I don’t necessarily consider it a black mark upon his character that he had the sagacity to stay home.
Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the only moment during the town hall which should have been preceded by “I’m Bill Nelson, and I approve this message.”
“Let me tell you about the bill that I have cosponsored. It defines very specifically assault rifle, it lists 200 different assault rifles. It lists, for example, the Kalashnikov AK-47 that — did you know? — is manufactured in this state,” Nelson said.
“Did you know that the state of Florida, the governor’s office gave financial incentives for them to come into the state and manufacture?” he unsubtly continued. “Tell you another one, that it is listed in that list of over 200 rifles. It’s the Sig Sauer MCX. That was the one that Omar Mateen, despite the fact that he had been on the terrorist watch list and was off, went into a gun shop and purchased that high-powered assault rifle.”
“And on that list, it also includes the AR-15. And did you know that the state of Florida, the governor’s office, gave financial incentives for the Colt corporation to come to Kissimmee to manufacture AR-15s, the same one that wreaked such havoc here and that you all are suffering so terribly from.”
Nelson’s comments were rebarbative enough that CNN — which is fighting off allegations that questions were scripted at the event — is more or less officially disavowing Nelson’s behavior. (An article from Cillizza, one of the network’s senior writers, is about as close to an unequivocal statement regarding Nelson’s behavior that you’ll get from the network.)
Cillizza added that Scott not showing up was a “mistake” and that the network wanted “even for a night … to just have an honest conversation about guns.” On the last count — in the immortal words of Jeanie Bueller — “Dry that one out and you could fertilize the lawn.”
However, on the first count, we ask which one looks worse: not showing up to a WWE match of a town hall bathed in the raw emotions of a mass shooting, or using that time as a paid campaign announcement? Scott couldn’t have showed up and refused to respond to Nelson’s attacks or be goaded into a battle of demagogy. He was busy doing other things that didn’t involve campaigning: namely, governing.
One hopes that’s something the people of Florida remember this November when they go to the polls.
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