AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

A Maelstrom for Moderators   

The referees for these freewheeling presidential debates should get combat pay. Wed., October 17, 2012.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

I don't know about you, but if I were CBS' Bob Schieffer, I'd be thinking about asking for a raise before next Monday's third and final presidential debate. And maybe for a suit of armor.

It's hard out there for a moderator.

Two weeks ago, during the first presidential debate, Moderator #1 Jim Lehrer of PBS simply got steamrollered by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

In the vice presidential faceoff last week, Moderator #2 Martha Raddatz of ABC became a goddess in the Twitterverse for her impressive performance at the helm, but only after struggling mightily to keep her charges, particularly the pugnacious, hyperactive Veep Joe Biden, playing by the rules.

Last night, Moderator #3 Candy Crowley of CNN could have used a Taser or something. Romney insisted on talking whenever he wanted to talk. Once President Barack Obama started talking, he found it difficult if not impossible to stop, dominating the time of possession.

Crowley did the best she could, repeatedly intervening to keep the combatants on task. But let's face it: The moderator's powers are limited. Telling a president or presidential candidate on national television to shut the hell up probably isn't wise. Tackling them seems out of the question. What's a moderator to do?

Given the challenging nature of her mission, I'd give Crowley fairly high marks for at least trying to keep order and for following up on the questions from the town hall attendees at Hofstra University.

Crowley also made moderator fact-checking history when she corrected Romney on the spot on whether Obama had labeled the Benghazi consulate attack an act of terror shortly after it occurred. It was a devastating moment for

Romney, a sharp reversal for a debater who thought he was on the verge of a major gotcha! moment at his rival's expense.

It was one of two major unforced errors on Romney's part. The other came when he left himself wide open in his final exchange with Obama when Romney said, "I care about 100 percent of the American people. I want 100 percent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future."

Romney simply doesn't want to be bringing percentages into the conversation, any conversation. His remark was an open invitation for Obama, who inexplicably hadn't mentioned it all night, to beat the GOP standard bearer over the head with his infamous remark dissing 47 percent of the American population as freeloaders who see themselves as "victims." And this at the very end of the debate, when Romney had no chance to respond.

So why has moderating these debates become such a challenge? There are a number of reasons. At the time of the first debate, Romney's campaign was reeling, under attack by many important Republicans. The race seemed to be slipping away from him. He needed a decisive win to change the momentum, and he got one. But to do so, he obviously had decided he needed to come on very strong. And so he pushed Lehrer around mercilessly. It also didn't hurt that Obama forgot to show up.

Then it was role reversal time. The Republicans were energized and emboldened. The Democrats were in despair. Someone had to show the party had a pulse, and who better than Biden? If Martha Raddatz had to get elbowed out of the way, so be it.

But there are overarching reasons that are complicating the life of the moderator. The race is very close. So much is at stake. And the two candidates, really, really don't like each other. The tension was palpable as Obama and Romney prowled the debate set on Long island.

The final debate, on foreign policy, is set for Monday at 9 p.m. at Lynn University in Boca Raton. Fasten your seatbelts.