Prima Donna Moderators and Shifting Formats Devalue Debates

Bob Barr

10/17/2012 9:40:00 AM - Bob Barr
"Three down and one to go. That's the scorecard for the American electorate evaluating the Republican and Democratic nominees for president and vice president, based on their performances in the total of four nationally televised debates. Thus far, viewers have indeed been exposed to differing styles offered by the four candidates (including Smirkin' Joe Biden's insufferable and childish attempts to throw Paul Ryan off stride with his repeated interruptions and bouts of laughter). We also have been able to glean glimpses of each man's substantive views on at least some of the important issues the next administration will face.

Unfortunately, having to watch these debates through the filter of high-ego, media-based "moderators," and ever-shifting formats for the sessions, has severely diminished their value to the voters. Until we as a people get serious about using debates between those men and women seeking to lead our nation as vehicles to uncover true substance and meaningful styles of leadership, we are doomed to national debates of value more to campaign "spin masters" than to real understanding of important national issues.

Last night's so-called "town hall" debate between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, moderated by veteran reporter and commentator Candy Crowley, was no exception. The format – which now seems to have become de rigeur for every election cycle – apparently was chosen in order to afford "average voters" the opportunity to interact with the candidates; "true democracy in action," so to speak. But, as we saw last night (and have seen in previous such programs), everything about these events is carefully staged and managed; and indeed the basic format is one demanded by one candidate over the other (in this case, Obama's people) because he or she believes such a format offers an advantage over their opponent.

Unfortunately for the Obama campaign, their candidate failed to capitalize on his perceived strength; failing repeatedly to clearly answer questions about his record on domestic and national security policies.

The moderator -- in last night's debate and in the first two between the presidential candidates and their running mates -- became nearly as much a part of the debate as the participants themselves. When a "moderator" interprets, re-phrases and follows up on questions from audience members, they have interjected themselves into the debate and clearly help to drive its outcome.

The performance by Martha Raddatz in Debate Number Two between Biden and Ryan, was no exception, either. If a moderator is permitted to cut off one candidate repeatedly while allowing the other to interrupt and drone on and on at will, then such forum becomes less a fair debate between two participants than a two-on-one rumble.

If a moderator simply sits back and lets the participants "go at it" -- as appears to have been first debate moderator Jim Lehrer's goal -- then why even have a moderator? If the candidates are allowed to simply repeat themselves at will, and blatantly refuse to abide by the rules of the debate they agreed to in the first place, why have a debate? (By the same token, if candidates ignore rules to which they have agreed and refuse to exercise common courtesy and professionalism in debate, perhaps this tells us something about their leadership styles and the role ego plays in how they deal with matters of importance -- but that's not the point of a debate.)

There are hundreds of fine journalists who regularly inform us of what is happening in the world around us; and innumerable commentators who provide intelligent and objective insight on public policy matters. Many of these men and women appear regularly on news programs in my home town of Atlanta; there are many others on stations and in communities from New York to San Diego. Why do we feel ourselves bound to limit the pool from which national debate moderators are chosen, to only journalists of so-called (and often self-defined) "national stature?" Why keep going back to the same well?

And why do we succumb to the irresistible urge to constantly tinker with and change the format for the debates? Why not utilize a single, clear format for every debate every cycle -- a format that neither gets in the way of the debaters nor "favors" one side or the other? A format with parameters that actually lift the process to a level commensurate with what ought to be the gravity and high professionalism of those persons seeking to be offered the most important political job in the world? And if the candidates' spinmeisters don't like it, so what? Presidential and vice-presidential debates are not about campaign staff or consultants, and it is high time we as a people took control and reminded them and their candidates of that important fact.