Campaigns like control. The less variables in any given situation, the better.
And so, it shouldn’t be surprising that the legal teams for President Obama and Mitt Romney — in a rare moment of bipartisanship — have complained to the Commission on Presidential Debates regarding moderator Candy Crowley’s assertions that she plans to follow up on questions asked by the townhall audience.
“In the view of both campaigns and the commission, those and other recent comments by Crowley conflict with the language the two campaigns agreed to, which delineates a more limited role for the moderator of the town-hall debate. The questioning of the two candidates is supposed to be driven by the audience members themselves — likely voters selected by the Gallup Organization. Crowley’s assignment differs from those of the three other debate moderators, who in the more standard format are supposed to lead the questioning and follow up when appropriate.”
Do we understand why the campaigns want Crowley, one of the best political journalists in the business, to be seen but not heard? Absolutely. Is it an absolutely ridiculous request? Absolutely.
For anyone who wonders why, go back and think how many town halls politicians have held over the years and how many of them have yielded any news or genuine insight into the candidates or their positions. If that number isn’t zero, it’s darn close.
While we are all in favor of “regular” people getting to directly question the candidates, the simple fact is that the likelihood is that these questions will be broad rather than narrow — a reality that will allow Obama and Romney to stick with their pre-determined talking points. That means a news-less debate and less new information for voters still trying to make up their minds.
Moderators matter. Journalism may not be the most popular profession these days but it is absolutely true that years of practice — like Crowley has had — trying to draw politicians out beyond their comfort zones is a skill. Not everyone can do it. (Yes, we understand the self-interest in making this argument. A reporter defending the inherent value and unique talents of reporters. What a shock! But, simply because it’s self serving doesn’t mean it’s not true.)
Put another way: Does anyone doubt that last week’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan wasn’t improved — and made more edifying for the “regular” viewer — by moderator Martha Raddatz bringing her knowledge to the table and interjecting herself in the debate?
Or, take it out of politics and put it in the sports context. Does anyone think the NFL replacement refs were better than the regular refs? Asking pointed questions that politicians don’t have easy answers to is a skill not unlike judging pass interference. It’s a judgment call that you only get good at with experience.
To be clear: the campaigns’ desire to keep Crowley on the sidelines is not born out of any grand desire to “let the people be heard”. Instead, it is a cynical play to avoid risk for both sides. The less direct questioning and, as importantly, direct follow ups the candidates are subjected to, the less chance there is they stray off their talking points and — gasp! — reveal a bit of their true characters.
You may not like or trust the media. But in Tuesday night’s debate, you want Crowley to be an active moderator with the freedom to bring her knowledge to bear on the arguments being put forward by the candidates. You just do.