Apr 1 1996

Crossfire: Still Missing a Space on the Left

Geraldine Ferraro on Crossfire

“From the left”–but not a voice for the left.

CNN has announced two new hosts to speak “from the left” on Crossfire. While some see an improvement over Crossfire‘s previous “left” hosts–Tom Braden, a former CIA official, and Michael Kinsley, who once promoted Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for president (Time, 5/15/89)–CNN has a long way to go before its left-right debate show represents the whole spectrum.

One of the new hosts is Geraldine Ferraro, the former congressmember who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1984. While she is fondly remembered by many feminists as the first woman on a major party’s presidential ticket, some of her more conservative policy stands are not as well known.

Ferraro campaigned in 1992 for a U.S. Senate seat as a “moderate,” supporting the death penalty and a “moment of silence” for prayer in public schools. As a member of Congress in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she voted for a District of Columbia criminal code that recriminalized homosexuality. She supported tax exemptions for religious schools that discriminated on the basis of race, and endorsed a constitutional amendment that would have banned busing as a method of integration. She voted against an amendment calling for a shift in funds from the military to domestic programs.

Ferraro is closely associated with the Democratic Party establishment, and has expressed interest in running for public office again. “She’ll be reluctant, as a result, to take controversial positions [on Crossfire] that might offend voters, campaign contributors or powerful Democrats–or turn up in some future Republican attack ad,” Knight-Ridder‘s Marc Gunther noted (Sacramento Bee, 2/11/96). Gunther and others called for CNN to pick an activist outsider–like FAIR’S Jeff Cohen, who was a candidate for the position–to balance Ferraro’s inside-politics approach.

Instead, CNN chose Bill Press, who stepped down as chair of the California Democratic Party to take the job. In a Feb. 22 memo to members of the party’s Finance Council, Press said he was “thrilled to have the opportunity to defend Bill Clinton and his agenda–with my co-host Geraldine Ferraro–every night on Crossfire.”

Right-wing hosts of Crossfire like Robert Novak and Patrick Buchanan have not shied away from criticizing Republican presidents when they saw them as deviating from conservative principles. Why should the left hosts defend Clinton and his often-centrist agenda “every night”–especially when he’s adopted a strategy of “triangulating” himself midway between the Democratic and Republican parties?

But Press, as head of the California party, has advocated such policies himself. Here’s his reaction to the Republican victory in 1994 (L.A. Times, 11/21/94):

The message we were broadcasting for the most part is that we’re there for the have-nots but we’re not there for the haves. And the haves voted and the have-nots didn’t. So we’re portrayed, I’m afraid, as the party of African-Americans, the party of Latinos, the party of women, the party of gays. But we’re not the party of white working men and women anymore and the middle class…. We have to reshape out agenda and stress the issues that appeal to the haves, like welfare reform and maybe some marginal kind of health reform, but no big, global thing.

Neither Ferraro nor Press is likely to offer any “big, global” vision from the left. Even less appropriate in the role of voice of the left is Crossfire Sunday’s co-host, Bob Beckel, a campaign consultant and corporate lobbyist who once gloated that “the left will scream” when Clinton downsized government (L.A. Times, 9/12/93).

Beckel’s efforts on behalf of corporate interests were illuminated when notes from a meeting organized by the American Petroleum Institute were obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (Washington Post, 2/12/96). Beckel joined right-wingers from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Progress & Freedom Foundation in a strategy meeting on how the oil industry could have better sold its attempts to weaken environmental laws–and how to do better next time.

“The Republicans should say that they are not cutting the EPA budget to harm the environment,” one unidentified participant advised. “They are cutting because EPA is wasting money, and catering to the special interests, like the ethanol lobby.”

Another, identifying with Big Oil, suggested: “We need horror stories and to say that we cannot afford such a foolish system…. We have to be able to say that we can do more, do it better, save the environment.”

Needless to say, in conflicts between environmentalists and big oil, or between have-nots and haves, or between social spending and military spending, the American left stands with the former over the latter. But can we count on CNN‘s “left” to advocate the positions of the American left?