Mission Impossible: Moderating a presidential debate

October 17, 2012

We are now three debates into the 2012 general election -- two presidential, one vice presidential -- and in each of that trio the moderator has emerged as a major story in his/her own right.

In the first presidential debate, Democrats questioned why moderator Jim Lehrer didn't intervene more or fact-check in real time.

In the vice presidential debate, conservatives sought to make hay out of moderator Martha Raddatz's alleged connections to President Obama before the debate.

And, in Tuesday night's debate, Republicans pilloried moderator Candy Crowley for her attempted litigation of who was right and who was wrong when it came to how and when the White House had labeled the Benghazi attack in its immediate aftermath.

(Nota bene: The Fix has never met either Lehrer or Raddatz. We know -- and like -- Crowley personally. Do with that information what you will.)

That Democrats and Republicans have focused much of their post-debate spin on what the moderator did or didn't do isn't surprising at all. After all, turning the media into a scapegoat is both convenient and effective; the bases of the two parties agree on almost nothing but neither of them like the press. (Media=great uniter.)

And, all's fair in politics. Campaigns can and will use anything and everything at their disposal to tilt post-debate coverage their way up to and including attacking the moderator. 

All that said, moderating a presidential debate is something close to an absolute impossiblity in this political age. Here's why:

1. The candidates (and their lawyers) negotiate the rules of engagement within an inch of their lives.  The flap over what role Crowley would play -- the campaigns advocated that she essentially be seen not heard -- provided a window into how these debates are lawyered to death in hopes of eliminating as much as risk as possible to the candidates. This is, of course, a good thing for the candidates and a bad thing for viewers -- and moderators.  

2. The candidates don't follow the predetermined rules.  Despite the fact that the campaigns get to make the rules, the candidates seem to have no compunction about not following them. Both men went over their allotted time, repeatedly interrupted each other and interrupted Crowley. Check out this clip from Now This News that shines a light on the interruptions:

 So, yeah.  

It is virtually impossible for Crowley, Raddatz or Lehrer to enforce rules that the candidates are willing to flout -- knowing that there is absolutely no penalty (beyond the disapproval of some in the media) for doing so.

3. The candidates complain about the rules.  Not only do they ignore the rules that their campaigns have laid out, they try to play school hall monitor when the other guy breaks those same rules. Repeatedly last night Romney asserted that the rules stated he got the last word. Obama tried to interject in order to note an alleged break with protocol. What can a moderator do amid that reality?

4. The candidates answer the question they want to answer, not the question asked. Politicians don't like to answer direct questions on difficult subjects.  So, they don't.  While a number of the questions from the townhall participants were decidedly pointed and sufficiently narrow as to elicit real answers, Obama and Romney repeatedly paid the briefest of lip service to what was asked before moving on to what they wanted to talk about. The immigration question provides the clearest evidence of this phenomenon.  Here's the question: "What do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?". The "answers" by the candidates devolved into who was the Republican party's "standard-bearer" in 2008, China policy and which man had the bigger pension. Good times.

5. Partisanship ensures alternate, competing realities: The remarkable polarization of the 2012 electorate -- almost no one has been really undecided for months -- ensures that the people watching who are, by and large partisans, will see entirely separate realities. One man's fact checking is another man's overstepping of moderator bounds. One woman's letting the conversation flow between the two candidates is another woman's losing control of the proceedings. One man's non-story (in Raddatz's case) is another man's disqualifying revelation.) The moderator, caught between this Scylla and Charybdis, has no option but to be battered along the rocks.

Yes, we know the Fix isn't on the short list to moderate these debates going forward. But, whoever does get that honor should be aware of just how difficult a task it really is.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · October 17, 2012