Tuned In

The New Crossfire Parties Like It’s 2003

The return of CNN's punditry face-off managed to be both snide and stilted at the same time.

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John Nowak / CNN

Crossfire with hosts Stephanie Cutter and Newt Gingrich: Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. Rand Paul join hosts Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter in the Crossfire to debate a congressional authorization for a Syria strike.

Is it already time for for early-’00s nostalgia? On CNN yesterday, it was 2003 again. The United States was debating a military strike against a Middle Eastern dictator. At issue were chemical weapons and the unknown dangers of war. There was a last-ditch effort to put WMDs under international control.

And there to guide us through it—with ESPN-style graphics, whooshing sound effects, and painfully scripted-sounding dialogue—was Crossfire! Nearly a decade after it left the air, CNN’s argutainment classic was back, with its left-right dynamic, its two guests in the Crossfire, and its time-tested philosophy that the nation could truly work through its most difficult issues if only cable pundits would be snottier to one another.

The hosts of the first outing–“On the left: Stephanie Cutter! On the right: Newt Gingrich!”–opened on a note that was not just snide but uncomfortably stilted. As they delivered their snide openings to each other, you could practically see the teleprompter’s reflection in their eyes. (“Stephanie, I’ve heard of leading from behind, but did you ever think you’d see Putin bailing out President Obama?” “Well, Newt, I don’t know where you’ve been over the past two years, but we couldn’t even get Putin to acknowledge that Syria was a risk.”) If you’re going to have on-air sniping as news entertainment, it should at least be genuine and from the gut; this was forced, like watching a catfight between stuffed cats.

The new iteration of Crossfire (which will also feature Van Jones and S.E. Cupp other nights) did end on a new segment, Ceasefire, in which Cutter and Gingrich highlighted the points on which they do agree: that Obama has a tough sell, that a peaceful settlement would be great, and that the situation was highly fluid. In other words: that the big news of the day was big news. So, thanks for that.

But substantively, as I suspected last week, the bigger problem was that Syria was exactly the kind of issue that flummoxes Crossfire’s partisan assumptions. (Related note: nothing like an actual war in which tens of thousands of people are dying to make your show’s cliché gunfire metaphor seem super-crass.) There’s not really a “from the left, from the right” on it; guest Rand Paul’s opposition to the attack could have been delivered by a leftist guest as well. Meanwhile, opposing him was Sen. Robert Menendez, making a qualified endorsement of a “limited strike.” Contain your qualified, limited excitement!

So Cutter and Gingrich retreated into the comfort zone of lowest-common-denominator cable news: define the issue entirely in terms of what’s bad for your political enemies. Forget the wisdom of war or the feasibility of eliminating chemical weapons: is this a political black eye for President Obama or a brave risk? Was the last-minute Russian proposal to get Syria to turn over chemical weapons a diplomatic coup or a sign of weakness? Break out the poll results!

The situation in Syria is a complicated one involving multiple sides, political vectors, and bad choices. That’s where a show like Crossfire comes in: it’s a machine designed to reduce anything to partisan dualism, to good-for-our-side, bad-for-their-side. Foreign interventions come and go, but that crossfire goes on and on and on.