Opinion: Presidential debates are not placing enough pressure on candidates

In an earlier article I had said the moderator should be a stronger force in debates, that Presidential candidates will inevitably be men accustomed to getting their way and that these televised events should provide the American people with an opportunity to bring politicians to heel. I attributed Jim Lehrer’s failure as a moderator not only to his overly permissive demeanor, but also to the “conversational” format of the debate, which quickly spiraled out of control.

I still believe all of these things. Sure, Candy Crowley did a better job of reigning in the candidates than Jim Lehrer. Yes, Barack Obama adjusted to the debate style this time, and the resulting contest was “fair.” The conversation took some interesting directions.

However, the problems with this unstructured, undisciplined format are evident even with someone tougher than Lehrer at the helm. Candidates interrupting and talking over one another does not serve the American people in any way. While the candidates could police each other’s responses, fact-checking one another as the debate proceeded, without any strong, objective presence it’s difficult for people to know truth from lies. Most people will not get anything valuable from such tangential arguments; they will just have their biases reaffirmed. I’m as guilty of this one as anyone else, and I’m working on it, but I know I’m not the only one with this problem.

On the plus side, the panel of questioners consisted of “real” Americans. Unfortunately this benefit is pretty much moot because the format enabled candidates to issue tangential responses which only superficially relate to the questions the panelists ask. Mitt Romney’s anecdote about staffing his cabinet with equal parts men and women in the name of gender equality stands out in my mind. Sure, it was a wonderful thing to do for a few smart, politically-minded women in the state of Massachusetts. But what does it do for the average American woman? Nothing.

Crowley did make gaffes and outright mistakes. She expressed fear of being “run out of town” when Romney tried to talk over her, insisting the last word should be his.  Crowley misrepresented the Obama Administration’s reaction to the Libya terrorist attack, siding with the President when he claimed he named it a terrorist attack almost immediately, when in fact it took him two weeks to do so. The number of times she tried to move the debate along only to be shut down by Obama, Romney, or both, is pretty egregious. However, she was not ignored to the same extent as Lehrer.

But just like it wasn’t ultimately Lehrer’s fault, it’s not really Crowley’s either.  I said it earlier and I will say it again, there needs to be some mechanism for controlling the candidates. I won’t pretend I know what it is. My first thoughts are:

1. Turn off the microphones when the candidates overstay their welcome.

2. Deduct the time candidates take to interrupt each other from their own time to speak.

If a candidate issues meandering or irrelevant responses, he should be called on it, and not just by the other candidate. The moderator can spot when a question has not been answered and say something. I recognize the difficulty of imposing limits on such prominent people, but chances are they didn’t get where they are by “playing nice.” I’m just saying more of an effort needs to be made.