The big issue with regard to the presidential debates in 2012, and one that will engender a fair amount of discussion from the two political parties and from the Commission on Presidential Debates, is the role of the “moderators.”
Debates are always contentious of course, with very high stakes. That’s why the parties agreed to form a Commission in the first place. The bipartisan Commission has strived to create a system of organized debates that will allow the candidates to have maximum flexibility and allow the voters to judge for themselves who is best qualified to be President. That includes a variety of formats and the use of journalists as moderators.
However, the moderators in this year’s debates – Jim Lehrer of PBS, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and Candy Crowley of CNN – have each had significant criticism for their handling of the debates. That’s nothing new, moderators are routinely criticized, usually by the losing candidate’s supporters. But the criticism this year is unusually intense. And to be honest, the moderators have earned some of that criticism.
Not many people realized that debate moderators did not have to sign an agreement abiding to the rules of engagement worked out by the Commission and signed by both presidential campaigns. It seems to me that would be a prerequisite to being a moderator. That is one reform the Commission could make, and probably will make, between now and the next presidential election year 2016.
Candy Crowley of CNN is a very nice person and a terrific journalist. But she saw her role as moderator in the second presidential debate far differently than did the Obama and Romney campaigns and the Commission staff who organized the debates. And in a moment that will now forever be in future election year “debate highlight” clips, she took it upon herself to “fact check” the presidential candidates and correct Governor Romney at a crucial point in the debate, on a crucial question – the Obama Administration’s handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi embassy attack.
The effect was to momentarily stop Romney in his tracks. Even though she later admitted that Romney’s criticism of the President was right “in the main,” it was too late – the damage was done.
It simply isn’t fair to the American people, who value these debates as their only opportunities to see the candidates together and close up in an unmediated format, for a moderator to, intentionally or not, influence the outcome of a presidential debate. Most assuredly, Mitt Romney flubbed his lines and was weak in his attack, but that weakness was aided and abetted by the debate moderator, which isn’t what anyone wants to have happen.
Come to think of it, why have a moderator at all? Lincoln and Douglas didn’t have a moderator, and those are considered the greatest debates since the Roman Republic. The Commission on Presidential Debates should consider at least one moderator-less debate, with automatic timekeeping and microphones that shut off after the candidate’s two-minute response. At least the candidates would know they were on equal footing.