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Why Debate Moderators Matter

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Michael Reynolds/AP

The platonic ideal of a presidential-debate moderator is like the psychoanalyst who uses silence as a therapeutic tool. He or she sits out of sight of the patient, opens the session with a general question, and doesn’t say much beyond “Tell me more about that” and “Time’s up.” The technique is meant to elicit intelligent self-scrutiny. The political version of this platonic shrink is a studiously neutral, almost invisible moderator who lets the candidates have at each other.

In the real world, that model doesn’t always cut it. A good debate is one that sheds light—not just on candidates’ personalities and temperaments, as the first presidential smackdown did this month but also on their records and plans for the nation. A moderator needs to seize what opportunities become available with an eye toward the ultimate goal of illumination. This is an active vision that requires flexibility, sharp-elbowed questions, and dogged follow-ups. A debate cannot be considered a success if voters are hit with an avalanche of unchallenged claims, counterclaims, numbers, and misrepresentations.

Some debate experts and partisans have nothing but praise for Jim Lehrer’s restraint in the first presidential debate. A moderator should set the table for discussion, they say, not confront participants or get in the way if they are engaging each other. Nor should the presider be required to clear things up. “A moderator is not there to fact-check in real time. That’s not the job,” says Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who heads the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

From the viewer’s standpoint, however, Lehrer achieved mixed results. He indulged in Beltwayspeak that must have bewildered many. (“Do you want to repeal Dodd-Frank?” “What about Simpson-Bowles? Do you support Simpson-Bowles?”) And he laid out generic questions that invited free-form candidate exchanges. (“What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?” “Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?”) Debate specialists say that if President Obama had been present in the moment to make his arguments against Mitt Romney more forcefully, we’d all be talking about that terrific Denver debate and the wisdom of Lehrer’s approach.

But Obama seemed absent, and Lehrer did not try to bring him forth. On one hand, the result was revealing. “You had a power vacuum on that stage that Romney very quickly figured out and jumped on and took advantage of,” says Northeastern University’s Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV. Obama had “the same opportunity to grab the reins and make it his own,” Schroeder says, but didn’t. Lehrer’s style exposed a possible Obama leadership deficit that polls are now picking up. On the other hand, the debate was misleading. Among other things, Obama and Romney had a confusing discussion about Medicare and, according to FactCheck.org, Romney’s performance included five “whoppers” on clean energy alone.

The generic table-setter has been Lehrer’s trademark throughout a moderating career that started in 1988. “The first topic tonight is what separates each of you from the other,” was his opening to President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot back in 1992. That approach raises two problems, says debate expert Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri. One, it makes Lehrer too predictable, allowing candidates to game out what to expect from him. And two, without focused follow-ups and strict enforcement of time limits, Lehrer’s style can allow candidates to “meander and go in whatever direction they want.”

That certainly wasn't how Martha Raddatz of ABC News handled the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. A veteran journalist well versed in foreign and domestic policy, Raddatz was energetic and participatory. All indications are that her style, not Lehrer's, will be on display in the two remaining presidential debates.

Like Radatz, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, who will moderate the Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign policy in Boca Raton, Fla., has shown what an engaged moderator can accomplish. He was relatively noninterventionist in the 2004 face-off between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, but he was spontaneous and followed up on several issues. And throughout the debate—here was the real contrast between him and Lehrer—Schieffer’s questions were pointed. Given Social Security’s finances, he asked Kerry, how could he promise to not cut benefits? “What part does your faith play on your policy decisions?” he asked Bush. And to Bush, jumping on an issue raised by Kerry, “Do you want to overturn Roe v. Wade?”

Adjudicating between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008, Schieffer again brought a sharp edge. And he repeatedly interjected follow-ups to pin them down on specifics and make them answer the questions he had asked. “I know how to eliminate programs,” McCain said. “Which ones?” Schieffer shot back.

The next presidential debate, on Tuesday, will have a town-hall format. Everyday Americans will be asking the questions, and history suggests they won’t be pointed. But CNN’s Candy Crowley, the moderator, told CNN colleague Suzanne Malveaux that she plans to shape the debate. Once the audience member asks a question, she said, “there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second. What about x, y, z?’ … They launch the discussion, and then the moderator furthers the discussion.”

Crowley, host of CNN’s Sunday talk show State of the Union, is an experienced interviewer, but this will be her debut as moderator of a general-election presidential debate. “We know you will take control,” Malveaux told her. Crowley responded by raising her hands to show two pairs of crossed fingers. Her goal is clear, and so is her prep work. She’s been studying “the holes in their arguments,” as she put it—evidence that the next moderator intends to mix it up.

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This article appeared in the Saturday, October 13, 2012 edition of National Journal.

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