In late 2004, Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire, and, instead of telling jokes, sincerely said the political debate show was "hurting America." CNN killed it a few months later, ending its 23-year run. But this spring, in an effort to boost the network's ratings, CNN president Jeff Zucker decided to reanimate it. And so, while acknowledging that Stewart inadvertently set a pretty low bar — don't hurt America — we can confidently say that Crossfire managed to clear it. There were even moments when the debate over a military strike in Syria went a little deeper than the typical cable news segment allows. It was also a pleasant surprise to discover that Crossfire is only half an hour long.
The original Crossfire usually featured journalists from the left and right — people with a point of view, but at least the pretense of independence and an aim for objectivity. CNN has partially done away with that, making the debate moderators Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for President Obama's reelection effort, and Newt Gingrich, 2012 Republican presidential candidate. (The show's two other hosts, Van Jones and S.E. Cupp, will be on the air Tuesday night. Neither has run a presidential campaign within the last 18 months.) Gingrich was uncharacteristically shy, while Cutter was stilted.
This meant that Cutter had essentially the same talking points as New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democrat who argued for strikes against Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. "The only reason the Russians are coming forward with this" — an offer to Syria's chemical weapons — "is because the president put the use of force on the table," Cutter said. This is exactly what the White House has been saying too. It makes sense, because Cutter as among a group of White House aides and former Obama staffers who met last week to discuss how to sell Syria to the public, according to The Washington Post. She reached near synchronicity with the debater she was supposed to be moderating. Menendez, too, said the Russian offer was only a result of Obama's threat of airstrikes. "I can say the only reason we are at this point is that the president said this [military force] is necessary," Menendez said.
Or, in another example, Cutter actually talked over Menendez as he made the White House's case that Obama didn't set a "red line" on Syria using chemical weapons — that line was set by the international community. "The red line was an international red line. It's not just that we said it--" Menendez said, before Cutter cut in. "You said you were a chemical weapons ban treaty!" she told to Paul. "So, that's a red line."
Nevertheless, Paul was able to repeatedly express his concerns about military action in Syria: whether a strike would make the Syrian government more weak, whether it would put more weapons in the hands of terrorists, etc. Unfortunately for Paul, he did not have as strong an ally in Gingrich as Menendez had in Cutter. Unlike Cutter, Gingrich doesn't have an informal gig advising the highest-ranking people in his party. Instead, he's been presenting himself as a new model for a Republican politician. Gingrich didn't address what Paul said, but twice noted John Kerry said strikes would be "unbelievably small," the smaller of Kerry's gaffes on Monday.
In the last minutes of the show, Crossfire offers a feel-good segment called "Ceasefire." It's supposed to show the hosts can find some common ground. This risks major cheesiness, so it was a relief to see the ceasefire was not a ceasefire at all. Both Gingrich and Cutter noted that polls showed Americans did not yet support the war. "I think we can both agree this is one of the most tumultuous periods of change I can remember," Gingrich said. Can't really disagree with that! "I think we can agree those polls numbers are not where the American public really is," Cutter said. They just showed Americans were tired of war in general — people are still mad about being "duped" into war in 2012, she said. Gingrich did not agree (micro-eyeroll above right.) "I love your confidence in the intelligence agencies you didn't trust," Gingrich said. "Fortunately we're double checking, and we have it on tape," Cutter responded. And so the show ended in the sarcastic catfight we'd been waiting eight years for.