Matthews’ Obama Accomplishments Gotcha (Updated)

Much has been made the last couple of days over Chris Matthews embarrassing Texas state senator Kirk Watson by asking him to name one of Barack Obama’s legislative accomplishments and then letting him hem and haw in ignorance.

Watson has already issued a self-deprecating “what I wish I’d said” essay indicating that the problem is that he was surprised, not that Obama hasn’t achieved anything. Hilzoy, though, thinks he should never have been asked the question.

Chris Matthews, by contrast, is paid large sums of money to provide political commentary and insight. I assume he has research assistants at his disposal. He could have done this work a lot more easily than I did. But he didn’t. He was more interested in gotcha moments than in actually enlightening the American people.

So here’s a challenge for Chris Matthews, or anyone else in the media who wants to take it up. Go over Clinton and Obama’s actual legislative records. Find the genuine legislative accomplishments that each has to his or her name. Report to the American people on what you find. Until you do, don’t accept statements from either side about who has substance and who does not, or who traffics in “speeches” and who offers “solutions”. That’s lazy, unprofessional, and a disservice to your audience.

I’m not a fan of the gotcha game and it’s particularly unfair with someone like Watson, who is not a regular in the national television spotlight. As a general rule, show hosts shouldn’t embarrass their guests — let alone in an ambush.

There was, however, something instructive in this particular exchange. Watson is, presumably, a fairly bright fellow with an above average knowledge of politics. He was invited as a guest on a national program to talk about why he was supporting Barack Obama for president. Quite obviously, his rationale has nothing whatever to do with Obama’s achievements as a Senator.

That Obama in fact has more legislative accomplishments than one would expect of someone so junior is to his credit and would seem to buttress his contention that he’s got the skills to forge compromise. But they’re not at the basis of his campaign. Nor, despite the fact that they are available in great detail for those who wish to see them, are his policy proposals. Rather, his appeal is his charisma, likability, and ability to convey a sense of confident optimism.

That understanding is worth conveying to an audience and exploring in debate.

Nor is it necessarily a criticism. While Ronald Reagan ran on a policy agenda, there’s little doubt that his personal charm and oratorical skill were a major factor in his getting elected. Ditto Bill Clinton. But both Reagan and Clinton had extensive experience as state governors before launching their presidential bids; Obama is a relative novice.

Update (Dave Schuler)

Actually, according to Thomas, Sen. Obama has been busier than the average senator, having sponsored 113 bills in the 110th Congress alone. That’s more than the average senator. Not as many as Clinton (150) but significantly busier than McCain.

Like most senators lots of the bills he’s written and sponsored have been flummery but at least a dozen are substantial. For example, S.115, a bill reforming energy policy, is a serious piece of legislation. There are many others on a variety of subjects.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, Media, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    Watson is from around here. Some of my liberal friends have voted for him for various offices for quite some time. He has been in politics for over 10 years. This is not his first rodeo in front of the TV lights.

    I think it says quite a bit about Obama that a state senator with 10+ years experience in politics would be caught so flat footed. It gives an example of the truth behind the charge that Obama may be inspirational, but where is the substance. An experienced politician can’t name off the top of his head why he supports a presidential candidate other than he is inspirational.

    I don’t think that is ‘gotcha journalism’ either. If he asked about Watson about his position on what Obama thinks is a patriotic company (referring to the legislation Obama has co-sponsored), then hitting him on specifics in the bill (e.g. does it require the elimination of secret ballots in union elections?) would be a gotcha given how low profile the issue is. But being unable to give any accomplishment that makes you think Obama would make a good president is a very reasonable open ended question. And I think we got a reasonable answer that Watson was persuaded by Obama’s inspirational capabilities, not by any substantial accomplishment.

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    Is Chris Matthews a journalist or an entertainer? Does he host a show designed to inform and educate or a show designed to further his agenda and garner ratings? For that matter, are there any political shows out there that do a good job of informing and educating?

    Let’s face it, journalism is in the toilet. From your local paper to the television networks they have failed in their responsibility to public service.

    Real journalism may be boring but it is sorely needed. I see the profession lacking even the most basic professional standards and continuing to allow fraud and negligence within it’s ranks. Matthews is just one of many hacks and this type of gotcha game is proof.

  3. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Obama has accomplished hoodwinking a large number of voters who are buying in to empty rhetoric. He speaks of hope as thought that were an end in and of itself. Every time I buy a lottery ticket I am filled with hope. Obama wants to change the nation. To what? I want him to explain exactly what it is we hope for and what changes he plans to bring about. How he plans to do that and what it will cost. It is time for this man to get real.

  4. carpeicthus says:

    I’m still waiting to hear about McCain’s achievements that the GOP will actually tout. He finally agreed that torture is awesome?

  5. yetanotherjohn says:


    How is this a “gotcha game”? Think about it. Watson was going on TV for one purpose, to pump up Obama as the man for the presidency. This was a softball question. Whatever reasons Watson had for thinking Obama was the man for the presidency, he could insert them there. If he had a cute story about Obama, he could put it there. If he had a press release from Obama, he could have put the answer after that. This was an open ended question that allowed Watson to make a free 30 second commercial telling us what is great about Obama. And we got the answer. Obama is inspirational. Thats it. That is the sole reason that Obama is the man for the presidency.

    Now should Matthew give an Obama (or Clinton, or McCain) supporter a soap box to make a free 30 second commercial like this? Probably not. I agree that journalism would generally be better served not with softball questions but with more substantive questions that aren’t going to solicit the equivalent of a campaign commercial. But even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut and Mathews seems to have stumbled upon one.

  6. graywolf says:

    Watson is just another never-was political hack who wanted his fifteen seconds of fame; he got it.

    His inarticulate, lame and bumbling manner seems typical of the “Obamabots” – generally whiny, self-centered and uninformed.

  7. Rick DeMent says:

    Obama has accomplished hoodwinking a large number of voters who are buying in to empty rhetoric.

    Bush did it and did it twice so why is this news?

  8. bains says:

    First of all, what Matthews asked was hardly a ‘gotcha’ question. One supports a candidate for various reasons, and as you point out, it is unlikely that for Watson legislative accomplishments are high on the list. That said, Watson did allow himself to be browbeat by the typically insipid and un-insightful Matthews.

    Secondly, that the left is finally getting around to objecting to the MSM’s laziness/incompetence/bias is telling. For many years, they have written off this complaint when proffered by the right. Oh, but now…

    Captin Sarcastic commenting at QandO had this observation:

    Every day I am more convinced that there is no such thing as political awareness, instead, we are more like sports fans, supporting the teams we have chosen to support, come hell or high water.

    That correct holding call that went against ones opponent, is an unjustified penalty when called against ones own team. This is not an indicator of intellectual honesty.