Crossfire was originally supposed to start Sept. 16, but CNN moved up the premier to Monday night due to the breaking news on Syria.
The decision was questionable — the show aired on the same night the president gave sit-down interviews to the major television networks — but it is one that reflected the prevailing mood of Washington, with lawmakers and staff returning from August recess anxious to do something about the president's proposal for intervention in Syria, even if that something is actually nothing, and amid deep skepticism that Washington is even capable of deciding, let alone executing, a decision on one of the most important issues it has debated in years.
It was only nine years ago that Jon Stewart embarrassed former Crossfire host Tucker Carlson in the show's most memorable performance for hurting the national discourse with its political hackery. When the show was canceled a few months later, CNN's president conceded Stewart's point.
Times have changed. (It is hard to imagine, in 2013, Carlson and Stewart's squabbling over whether Stewart was in fact John Kerry's "butt boy.") But in hiring two of Washington's most high-profile hacks — former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and former Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter — CNN appeared to be trying to strike a balance between the criticism that chased it off the air in 2005 and the undeniable success their competitors have had in replicating its format.
Were they able to have it both ways? Both hosts seemed conscious of upending expectations. In its first episode, viewers were treated to a winking, congenial Gingrich, an unfamiliar sight to those who watched his unlikely rise as a candidate for the Republican nomination last year, and a nervous, human-seeming Cutter, famous in political circles for her hard-bitten approach to politics. They sat a little too close while Gingrich recounted the latest news about the Russian offer to help secure Syria's chemical-weapons stockpile.
They engaged in a stilted back and forth, employing false familiarity by using each other's first names too often: "Now Stephanie, I've heard of leading from behind, but did you ever think you'd see Putin bailing out President Obama?" Gingrich asked. "Well, Newt, I don't know where you've been over the last two years, but we couldn't even get Putin to acknowledge that Syria was a risk," Cutter said in riposte.
The show broke down along the usual partisan lines, with Cutter and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez arguing in support of the president's position and Gingrich and Republican Sen. Rand Paul arguing against it. But this time the positions were flipped in a way that reflected how much the politics have changed since Crossfire went off the air, with Menendez making the hawkish case and Paul positioning himself as the antiwar politician.
In a nod to the show's attempt at partisanship without puerility, it ended with a segment called "Ceasefire," where the co-hosts make nice by reciting a few points they found they can agree on. But the segment felt too pat, and their points of agreement were too anodyne to be interesting. Cutter said that the two agreed that the possibility of a Russian proposal to secure chemical weapons was a good thing, and that the polling showed Obama would have a tough time getting Congress to approve military action. Gingrich said that they could agree that the breaking news of the last 48 hours had been "tumultuous."
Cutter said that they could agree that the polling showing most Americans opposed to a Syrian intervention was not an accurate assessment of popular opinion because "they were duped into war 10 years ago with weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist and now they're forced to make a decision on weapons of mass destruction that do exist." Gingrich cocked an eyebrow — apparently on this they didn't agree — but, he added, they both agreed that you can follow the show on Facebook and Twitter to share your thoughts.
It was a perfect reflection of CNN's ambivalence about where it fits into the greater television landscape. If the network can't pick a side, it can at least let their hosts pick one.