THEY’RE NOT USED TO THESE KINDS OF QUESTIONS…. When Sam Stein asked President Obama last night about Pat Leahy’s idea for truth and reconciliation committee, it was a confrontational question. But more importantly, as Ezra noted, it was “confrontational from the left rather than from the center.”

It prompted Atrios to make a very good point: “Confrontation from the left … is what is almost entirely missing from our political discourse. Poor Ben Nelson (don’t really pity him) just had no idea how to deal with Rachel Maddow because he never gets questions from that direction.”

Quite right. Last week, during the Senate debate, Nelson made four appearances in four days on Fox News and Fox Business. The questions were predictable, and presupposed that Republican talking points were right. Nelson clearly struggled in the Maddow interview, though, in part because he faced substantive questions from a progressive perspective, and in part because he’s not used to substantive questions from a progressive perspective.

Consider the kind of questions Maddow threw his way: wouldn’t the legislation be more effective with a higher ratio of spending to tax cuts? Why cut $15 billion in school construction money? (When Nelson emphasized the importance of local control of education, Maddow reminded him that school construction crews wouldn’t affect the curriculum.) Why take out $40 billion in aid to states? Why is there less money going to food stamps, when food stamps offer the best stimulative bang for the buck of anything in the economic arsenal? (That last point has been lost on almost everyone else in broadcast media.)

Ultimately, Nelson seemed to argue that the cuts were necessary to generate Republican support, needed to cut off Republican obstructionism. (He told Maddow at one point, “You can do the math,” referencing the Democrats’ 58-seat caucus.) And that may be true. But the key here is that he was pressed from the left for a policy justification — and Nelson couldn’t offer one.

It’s one of the reasons I find shows like Maddow’s (and press conference questions like Sam Stein’s) so important. The political discourse is dominated by a certain conventional wisdom, which looks at the news through a prism of Republican creation. Josh Marshall noted recently the “continuing Republican tilt of much of the capital press corps. Not in ideological terms perhaps, but in terms of whose opinions carry weight, whose matter and whose do not.”

Compare Maddow’s interview with Ben Nelson with every other interview he’s done in the last two weeks. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.