Questions of competence

Questions of competence

Debates turn into free-for-alls when ‘moderators’ don’t do their jobs

By Barry Gordon 10/11/2012

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In the first debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama, there was, for the second time in this campaign, a prominent role performed by an empty chair. This particular empty chair was supposed to have been occupied by a moderator who would keep the debate on track, challenge false statements from both sides and follow up with questions designed to keep the candidates on their game. Instead, the chair was filled — or not — by retired PBS “News Hour” anchor Jim Lehrer.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas were structured but fairly freeform. One person spoke for an hour, the other person spoke for 90 minutes and the first person got a 30-minute rebuttal. But in modern times, beginning with the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, there was an active role for a journalist who would pose questions directly to the candidates, follow up when necessary and act as timekeeper. It is this basic format that has been used until two weeks ago.
 
Over the years, the format has been questioned, especially when the moderators favored “horse race” and “gotcha” questions over complex discussions of substantive issues. So it was a welcome relief when the nonpartisan and independent debate commission switched things up this year. The format was to allow for free exchanges between the candidates and more time to discuss issues in depth.
 
It didn’t work out that way. First of all, Romney, as he did all primary season, ran roughshod over the moderator, often refusing to give up the floor and making sure he got the last word, which Lehrer seemed all too willing to give him. Second, a loose format didn’t require a hands-off attitude on Lehrer’s part. He still could have questioned false assumptions, corrected misstatements of fact and followed up on vague or contradictory answers. But he chose not to.
 
Could Obama have become his own moderator, peppering Romney with tough questions and pointing out the myriad contradictory statements he made that night? Possibly, but one of the roles of a moderator is to lessen the opportunity for direct confrontation between candidates. Arguably, Lehrer’s inability to bring focus or evenhandedness to the debate was worse than having no moderator at all.
 
The larger issue is whether we learned anything. We learned Romney could turn on a dime and lie with great skill. We also learned Obama was either a) tired, b) unprepared, c) preoccupied or d) all of the above, and that five weeks before Election Day there are still undecided voters waiting for some kind of lightning bolt to strike them before they can make up their minds.
 
But I think we also learned something about each candidate’s vision of who the American voter actually is. I’m not referring to the “47 percent” issue. What I see on display is something even more revealing. I’m referring to the statement made by Romney Campaign Manager Erich Ferhnstrom that in a general election, as opposed to a campaign for the nomination, “everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” I find that attitude to be deeply cynical. It assumes a candidate doesn’t really need to have any core beliefs and can adjust his message at will for whatever audience he is addressing. We’re told all candidates do that and, to an extent, it’s true. I’ve certainly seen candidates emphasize different issues for different audiences. What I’ve never seen is a candidate fundamentally change positions as blatantly as Romney did during the debate. No tax cut for the wealthy, no abandonment of Wall Street regulation, no mocking of Obama for wanting to hire more teachers — all things Romney did frequently on the campaign trail. As the president said in one of his very few comebacks, Romney’s basic approach to much of his campaign platform was “Never mind.” Only someone with a fundamentally low regard for the American people could assume we wouldn’t notice or care if Romney appeared to reject his own policies. Make the sale, that’s the only important thing. Voters won’t care if you’re not consistent. In Romney’s view, we have very short attention spans and are easily fooled. We can’t remember what we ate for breakfast, let alone whether Romney favors requiring insurance companies to treat people with pre-existing conditions (Hint: He doesn’t).
On the other hand, Obama may have too high an opinion of American voters. He suggested the debate would be an opportunity to have a “serious conversation” with the American people. He keeps telling us that we are the change, we can move mountains together and we deserve the truth. I think he really believes that because, as a community organizer, he’s seen people power in action. But as Seth Myers recently joked on “Saturday Night Live,” “Put up a Facebook page and we’ll “like” it. It’s the least we can do. It’s also the most we can do.”
 
I hope we’re not as vacuous or gullible as Romney seems to think we are. But I doubt we’re as motivated and well-informed as Obama assumes us to be. On this issue, I’m still undecided.  Anyone got a lightning bolt?  

Barry Gordon is an adjunct professor at Cal State LA.

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