José Díaz-Balart, one of five moderators in Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate, posed a fiery question on the pressing topic of immigration. “There are undocumented children being held alone, in detention, even as close as Homestead, Fla., right here, less than 30 miles from where we are tonight. Fathers and mothers and children are dying while trying to enter the United States of America,” said Díaz-Balart, his voice rising in emotion. “We saw that image today that broke our hearts and they had names: Oscar Martinez and his 23-month old daughter Valeria died trying to cross the river to ask for asylum in this country. Last month, more than 130,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border. Secretary Castro, if you were president today, hoy, what would you specifically do?”
The candidates did their best to address the question, though Díaz-Balart topped them in emotion. His question took nearly a minute, in a debate in which candidates were struggling to get an uninterrupted thought or two across to a TV audience of millions.
So why not, just once, let the candidates ... debate? Which is to say, these are the folks who claim to have the leadership skills and social caliber to run the United States of America. Once the winner of the sweepstakes takes office, they’ll have to straighten out differences with allies and opponents alike, without the interdiction of Jose Díaz-Balart or Lester Holt or Savannah Guthrie or Rachel Maddow or Chuck Todd. Perhaps we should see how they perform without onstage supervision.
This idea has a close association with Republican politician-turned-pundit Newt Gingrich, who in 2011 proposed a series of seven unmoderated debates with President Barack Obama. If he had won the Republican nomination, that is. He didn’t. Before vacating the race, however, Gingrich did pull off a “Lincoln-Douglas”-style debate with candidate Jon Huntsman. Noted ABC News: “A timekeeper — not a moderator — sat next to the two and spoke only after a candidate had finished talking, and just to introduce the other. Gingrich said at the beginning that the debate would lend itself to unpredictability because ‘you don’t have talking points, your consultants didn’t figure it out, you didn’t do focus groups, you’re just talking from your own experience about the nature of the world.’”
How about that? By contrast, the format for this week’s Democratic debates hosted by NBC News/MSNBC/Telemundo followed a standard format: Well-prepared moderators — Díaz-Balart, Guthrie and Holt in the first hour; Maddow and Todd in the second — sought to stump the candidates with questions that have been conceived, drafted, redrafted, murder-boarded and kneaded with sharp knuckles. Then, when the questions touched off squabbling among the candidates, the moderators inevitably slipped into their role as hall monitors.
“Your time is up. Your time is up,” scolded Maddow late in the Wednesday debate as one of the candidates prattled on. Time-shaming the candidates constituted a central responsibility of the moderators.
There are powerful reasons, to be sure, that moderators are so central to these events. One is that they are paid a lot of money. Debate moderation is a prestige activity for which television talent and their agents petition with all their jargon-laden might. The political parties that choose broadcast partners, too, may well fear that an unmoderated debate would descend into a chaotic spectacle that would erode their “brand.” That’s all the more reason to try it, at least once. In a time of upended norms, this is a good one to break.