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There's Very Little Fire in CNN's Revived 'Crossfire'

For weeks, CNN has been promising that the new "Crossfire" would be a different kind of cable news show. “Americans are tired of cheap debate, but they want deep debate,” host Van Jones said in an interview before the show aired. “We want everyone... to be part of a conversation, not just part of a shouting match,” host Newt Gingrich explained in another interview. "Crossfire," which premiered last night, is far from a shouting match. And that is precisely the problem. 

For the premiere, Stephanie Cutter and Newt Gingrich—half of the hosting team that includes Jones and S.E. Cupp—moderated a debate about U.S. military action in Syria with Senators Rand Paul and Robert Menendez. Menendez argued for the importance of intervening in Syria in order to send a message to Iran; Paul explained his resistance to U.S. strikes by saying that “the president shouldn’t be willy nilly drawing red lines” since “the more red lines you draw, and the more you let people go beyond it, the less your credibility is.” Menendez replied that the president isn’t drawing red lines; the world is.

Gingrich seemed a bit like a sedated bear, with no hint of his usual ardor. His questions were wordy and he appeared to be consciously instructing himself to be measured and calm. But Cutter, alas, was even more ill at ease in the hosting seat. She interrupted, laughed nervously, rolled her eyes, and was visibly embarrassed to be talked over. Accustomed to the more straightforward role of talking head, both Gingrich and Cutter looked stymied by the task of directing traffic. “Let me finish,” Paul told Cutter, and she fumed. 

The four sat in red swivel chairs, the Crossfire logo blazing in the background. As they argued, their faces separated into a dramatic split screen—Menendez peering over his spectacles, Gingrich squinting, Cutter blinking incredulously. Cutter and Gingrich were positioned so close to each other at the small table that they had to crane their necks to banter. In lieu of real rapport they resorted to saying each other’s names a lot (“See, Stephanie...” “Well, Newt...”). Paul took slow sips from his large CNN mug, somewhat ominously. “With all due respect to my colleagues, I don’t think the Russians are showboats” was about as intense as Menendez got. Overall, the partisan heat stayed at a low burn.

The premiere was less interesting to watch than early “Crossfire," mostly because it was missing the confident steering and coolheaded interventions of the early “Crossfire” hosts (i.e., our own Mike Kinsley). But the show has promise, and the awkwardness of the premiere may be mostly a matter of working out kinks. The lack of a live audience, which does seem to encourage more sophisticated debate, is a particularly welcome development.

Syria, though, was not an ideal subject for opening night of the show, which returned to the air early specifically to tackle the topic. Discussion lingered on logistics and kept returning to basic common ground. “Even though this is supposed to be ‘Crossfire,’ maybe we can all agree it would be a good idea not to bomb Syria,” Paul said. No one seemed particularly impassioned because the conversation was less about bridging intractable ideological divides than congressional augury and debating political optics. The new mandate of civility felt at times like a muzzle. The end of the show introduced a segment called “Ceasefire,” a particularly dopey bit of Tucker Carlson–era atavism. “We both agree that the president has a big mountain to climb,” Cutter said. “We both agree,” Gingrich added, “that this is one of the most tumultuous periods of change I can remember.” Unfortunately, you wouldn't know it from watching last night's show.