Through three debates — two between the presidential candidates, one featuring their running mates — there’s been one constant: The moderators have been part of the story each time. PBS’ Jim Lehrer was faulted by some for being too hands-off; ABC’s Martha Raddatz for being too quick to interrupt; CNN’s Candy Crowley for playing fact-checker during one particularly heated exchange between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Do we need moderators for presidential debates?
Total Voters: 230
(As an aside, as someone who’s moderated several debates myself, Crowley was wrong to intervene in that manner for two reasons, neither of them partisan: First, it wasn’t her place to offer an opinion; if she was trying to cut off the debate and move on to another topic, she should have simply said, “This one will have to go to the fact-checkers.” Second, fact-checking isn’t part of the moderator’s job largely because the moderator has too much else going on to be counted on to be a reliable fact-checker, from keeping track of speaking time to paying attention to which question comes next and even whose turn it is to give the first answer to that question. Crowley was, we can only assume, going off memory about what Obama said at a press briefing almost five weeks earlier, and with more than 60 million people watching. She was just as likely to make a mistake or misspeak as the candidates were.)
Rather than arguing about which moderator did the best job, or which style is best, my question to you today is: Do we even need moderators for these debates?
Throughout the primary season, Newt Gingrich famously challenged anyone and everyone to “Lincoln-Douglas style debates” without moderators. How much would you like to see Obama and Romney taking turns asking each other questions rather than relying on journalists and “undecided” voters bound to be accused of being partisan? (One thing I thought was clear from Tuesday night’s debate was that none of the questioners sounded all that “undecided” — their questions were aimed at one candidate or the other.)
Ah, you may ask, but who will cut off the candidates when they speak too long if there isn’t a moderator?
Well, the first three debates have proven human moderators aren’t very good at cutting off the candidates anyway. A CNN honcho even defended Crowley’s over-allowance of time to Obama — a repeat from Lehrer’s moderation of the first debate — on the ludicrous grounds that Obama speaks more slowly than Romney and might not have gotten in more actual words during his extra minutes of speaking time.
In any case, technology would do a much better job: Simply flash a red light when a candidate has 5 or 10 seconds left, and then cut off his microphone when the time has elapsed.
And what about the questions? Wouldn’t the candidates just make the debates meaningless or overly partisan by getting bogged down in gotcha-style questions?
Oh, you mean like George Stephanopoulos, apropos of nothing, asking GOP candidates about banning contraceptives last January?
It’s a problem that already exists with moderators. But it’s also one that, if the candidates themselves did it, would force voters to evaluate the candidates for asking such questions rather than letting the moderators take the blame. If Obama or Romney asks a gotcha question, he’d have to defend his choice as much as the other candidate had to defend his answer.
You might guess where I land on this issue, for at least one debate per cycle. But what say you? Do we need moderators in presidential debates?
It’s the return, after a brief hiatus, of the Poll Position question. Answer in the nearby poll and in the comments thread below.
– By Kyle Wingfield