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The Talk Show Culture Seeps into Politics

Last week, following a spirited debate between Delaware senatorial candidates, James Fallows wrote that  Republican hopeful Christine O'Donnell comes across as a "perfect, unflappable product of the talk-show culture."

The talk-show culture rewards "an affect of breezy confidence on all topics and penalize admissions of complexity, of ignorance on a specific topic, or of the need for time to think," he said.

Entertainment, wild rhetoric and some disregard for facts, rather than erudition (often cited as a kind of defect in President Obama's governing style), seems to be a concerted strategy among some of the candidates, who receive more than their fair share of media attention with their verbal grenades.

Based on her performance during her debates with rival Democrat Chris Coons, O'Donnell indeed comes across like a cable talk-show personality, constantly interrupting, talking over people, critiquing her opponent and dropping factually questionable zingers.

It's no surprise given her years on the talk-show circuit, in which the goal is to get attention by being outspoken and controversial even if not always very well prepared with the facts. Her now well-know comments about witchcraft, mice brains, and China threats have made O'Donnell into an object of ridicule on Saturday Night Live.

O'Donnell today challenged her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, on his statement that the Constitution disallowed the integration of religion into the federal government. At a debateat Delaware's Widener School of Law, aired by WDEL radio, Coons was arguing that creationism should not be taught in public schools because of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

O'Donnell, who believes that evolution is theory and not fact,questioned whether the First Amendment address the church and state issue. "The First Amendment does?" O'Donnell asked. "Let me just clarify: You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?"

"Government shall make no establishment of religion," Coons returned serve, citing the text of  First Amendment. (Coons wasn't totally accurate but close enough. The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.")

"That's in the First Amendment...?" O'Donnell responded.

The Tea Party Republican candidate for Alaska's Senate seat, Joe Miller, is a West Point and Yale Law School graduate. He doesn't come from the talk-show culture, but he took a page from the talk-show script when he used Communist East Germany as an example of how to govern borders, such as the one between the U.S. and Mexico.

A boy touches the concrete plates of the east side of the former Berlin Wall at the wall memorial at Bernauer Street in Berlin, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009, prior to the 48th anniversary remembrance celebration of the construction of the Wall. The wall memorial was constructed in Bernauer Street using original parts of the wall in memory of the barrier which separated east and west Berlin which fell in 1989. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

"The first thing that has to be done is secure the border. ... East Germany was very, very able to reduce the flow," he said. "Now, obviously, other things were involved. We have the capacity to, as a great nation, secure the border. If East Germany could do it, we could do it."  

Of course, the "other things involved" was approval for East German border guards to fire on people trying to escape into West Germany, and the wall was designed to keep East Germans captive, not to let them out.

The Tea Party and Republicans are not the only people in politics to over-rotate with their rhetoric.

Speaking in Allentown, PA on behalf of congressional candidate John Callahan, Vice President Joe Biden fired off a short barrage at the opposition party. "We've seen this movie before. It's a horror movie. Putting these guys back in charge is like making an arsonist fire marshal."

Of course, it's hard to top the real talk-show stars when it comes to inflammatory verbal excess. Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners Monday that Mr. Obama has "switched from Messiah to demon," based on observing some recent pictures of the president.

Said Limbaugh: "These pictures, they look demonic. And I don't say this lightly. There are a couple pictures, and the eyes, I'm not saying anything here, but just look. It is strange that these pictures would be released....It's very, very, very strange. An American president has never had facial expressions like this. At least we've never seen photos of an American president with facial expressions like this."

Lively, hard fought debates are part of the American political tradition. It's part of living in a country the practices free speech. But offering up cable talk-show theatrics isn't the best method of debating issues. It's a way to generate headlines and exposure -- and play into the deep frustration among voters with Congress and the president.


Daniel Farber is editor-in-chief of CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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