Opinion: The next presidential debate moderator needs to take the candidates to task

I do not want to spend too much time criticizing Jim Lehrer. When he agreed to moderate the first presidential debate, he probably did so with the best of intentions. He meant well. But a potato probably means well and would have done a better job controlling the candidates.

A drinking game could be made about the debate: one shot for every time someone talks over Lehrer and two for every time a candidate says “five trillion dollar tax cut”. The circuitous and banal discussion of the alleged five trillion dollar tax cut cannot be wholly attributed to Lehrer’s inability to control the candidates; however, this meandering conversation lasted significantly longer than it should have.

All joking aside, Jim Lehrer had been working with an untested debate format. I respect him and what he tried to do: promote discussion between Romney and Obama. Romney adapted to the format, Obama did not. Both had equal opportunity to do so. Obama’s loss is not Lehrer’s fault.

Personally, I support the idea of candidates engaging each other directly, rather than engaging in a job interview with the moderator. It places more pressure on the candidates to articulate their own policies clearly and expose the weaknesses in the oppositions’ policy. The candidates can also call each other on their lies this way; Barack Obama claims he was “too polite” and did not take this opportunity.

In spite of this format’s advantages, it is simply not conducive to a 90 minute debate. Creating a more involved, less rehearsed conversation is a hollow victory when there is not enough time to reap the benefits.

Further, this attitude presupposes that the candidates are not oversized children who will interrupt and/or shout over each other. Both tickets are guilty of this, but Joe Biden and Mitt Romney are guiltiest here.

Martha Raddatz, moderator of this past Thursday’s vice presidential debate, offered an alternative to Lehrer’s idealistic but ultimately ineffectual approach. Raddatz allowed and even encouraged the candidates to address one another so long as the conversation remained productive, intervening when the spirited conversation devolved into a shouting match or became circuitous.

Raddatz was strict, if not unreasonable regarding time limits; when Biden accused Ryan of cutting into his time, Raddatz reassured Biden that he would be given an opportunity to speak. She asked tough, direct questions in contrast to Lehrer’s more vague and permissive ones and was quick to press candidates for the facts when they spent too much time on opinions or complaints. For instance, when Biden objected with comments, such as “Malarkey!” and “that’s a lot of stuff”, Raddatz immediately demanded clarification.

Dealing with a boisterous personality like Biden’s requires a certain mix of force and diplomacy; Raddatz found this balance early on and never lost it. I only wish she could have done something about his attitude: too often did he respond to Ryan’s claims with a wide smile and derisive laugh. I’m a Democrat and I found it to be excessive. Ryan, though more soft-spoken and respectful of the rules of the debate, can be rather slippery in his rhetoric. Raddatz did a great job of forcing him to cut to the heart of the matter.

The next moderator should take his cues from Raddatz. That much is obvious; however, the consequences for infringement upon the rules of the debate should be greater.  For example, if the candidates try to talk over the time limit, the microphones should be turned off. If one interrupts the other to make a point, the time they take should be deducted from their own speaking time.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are men accustomed to power. They are used to being questioned but not truly taken to task for their beliefs, policies, and actions. Through the debates, America has a golden opportunity to shift this power dynamic. The candidates need to know they are, quite literally, not running the show. A moderator should be a neutral but very strong presence in a debate.

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