Was Jim Lehrer a Replacement Moderator?

As televised Presidential debates go, it’s pretty clear that Romney trounced Obama. If you disagree, listen to Chris Mathews and the rest of the liberal MSNBC fan club. He and the rest of the Obama groupies were fuming after the debate. Choking back tears of frustration, Mathews demolished the President’s performance with a ferocity beyond anything he had to offer the Republican primary candidates after their debates last spring.

But that’s a matter of performance, of campaign optics and body language, things that matter in an election, but should not matter in an election. Instead, let’s take a look at how Jim Lehrer performed. Football fans have been focused in recent weeks on the importance of refereeing in the NFL. Poorly managed games lead to illegitimate results. Poor refereeing made for more entertaining programming, but also less serious outcomes. It might be fun to see what ridiculous thing will be called on the field, but it ultimately degrades the game, on many levels.

And so we have Jim Lehrer, an experienced and admirable journalist, one with few living equals, but who none the less was caught flat-footed, either intentionally or accidentally, and allowed a basic and important civic event to descend into post-modern spectacle.

Like referees overseeing a game, the debate moderator is present to be our, the audience’s, inside man. He’s there, on the ground, with eyes, ears, and most importantly, a voice. He enforces the rules of the engagement not arbitrarily, but for a purpose. In football, that purpose is to tell us who was the better team on the field that day. In presidential debates, the purpose is to help inform us who will be a better leader for the country. The worse the moderator, the more skewed the results, and the less helpful the debate ends up being.

As I mentioned above, just because Romney “won” the debate does not mean he would be a better president. But that’s in large part because presidential debates are so mismanaged that their results can’t be trusted. Just like poor refereeing would have led us to believe that Seattle was a better team than Green Bay, poor debate moderating would lead us to believe that Romney is the better candidate, even if that’s not actually the case.

To clarify, I’m not saying that Romney isn’t the better candidate, even though I think he’s not, and I’m not saying that a perfectly moderated debate would make it perfectly clear who the better candidate in fact was. What I’m saying is that a better moderated debate helps lead us to the truth, and toward a better informed decision, rather than what we got, which was a debate that had more in common with Hobb’s State of Nature than Kant’s Kingdom of Ends.

What follows will be some choice examples.

Lehrer began the debate by saying he had made the final selections for his questions without prior approval from anyone else. This would be good to know—if he had actually planned on asking any of them.

Two big questions confronted the candidates going into last night.

For Romney this question was: what exactly is your plan? How, specifically, do you actually plan on cutting taxes, preserving Medicare, and still bringing down the deficit?

For Obama, the question was: you’ve had four years to rescue the economy, but it hasn’t happened. If you want to stay on the same path for the next four years, why will anything be different? What about your plan that hasn’t worked so far, will magically start working after January?

Both of the candidates got through the debate without having to really come to terms with either of these questions.

Romney’s plan is to lower tax rates and keep revenue neutral, all while magical economic growth makes up the difference. Lehrer did not press him on this point, the keystone of his economic agenda. Obama tried, but because the spectacle of political debates doesn’t reward harping on the same point, his pressing Romney to respond to the provocative “$5 trillion” formulation didn’t just fall flat, it ended up being on net, a mistake.

Obama put together a commission to tackle the deficit. It resulted in the Simpson-Bowles approach. He walked away from it. Romney called the President’s bluff on deficit reduction by pointing out that it’s four years later, and he hasn’t embraced his own commission’s plan to tackle the deficit, let alone put the country on a path toward fiscal equilibrium. But unlike his opponent, Romney wasn’t relying on Lehrer to call balls and strikes. Instead, he not only pointed out the President’s double-talk on this issue, but then pointed out why his approach would accomplish precisely what the President has not.

There is no substance, but there doesn’t need to be. There just needs to be the projection of substance. To Obama’s credit, he got down into the weeds of policy, which probably isn’t surprising given that his time is consumed with governing rather than campaigning. Unfortunately, governance contributes nothing to good campaigning, and so the President’s decision to talk about who he wants to tax, and what subsidies he wants to cut, what kinds of programs he wants to continue to make education more affordable, and what exactly “Obamacare” does, actually ended up hurting him.

Obama made himself vulnerable by talking specifics (to a degree) not only because he’s President, and so has a record to grapple with, but seemingly because he thought that honesty and openness would favor him, and hurt Romney. Romney after all “has a plan.” But so many promises are attached to this plan, that it can’t possibly be real. so Romey should be at a disadvantage here. Little did Obama know that after putting himself out there though, he would just present a bigger and easier target for Romney, who could then duck and cover behind a maze of obfuscated positions, without the fear of a foul being called.

I would assume that Jim Lehrer thought that letting the candidates engage one another would be better than trying to grill them with the same questions they’ve spent the last several months dodging. But while it’s more entertaining to see the candidates face-off with one another, it would have been much more helpful to see them face-off with their own positions, to confront the facts and reality of what they’re actually saying, and what they’ve actually done. I had questions for both candidates, and Lehrer was supposed to be my representative on stage to make sure that at least some of them didn’t go un-addressed. In the end, the candidates aren’t suppose to be talking to one another, they’re suppose to be talking to voters. It was Lehrer’s responsibility to try and make this happen, but he eschewed it.

I honestly don’t know what the hell Romney wants to do anymore. On Iran, health care, or the tax code, his position eludes me, still—and spend an ungodly amount of time actually trying to follow this stuff. God help the poor low information voter whose only context for judging the candidates is 60 seconds of sound bites and the headline: Romney crushes Obama in Wednesday Night’s Debate!

Most of Lehrer’s interactions with the two candidates were like the following: Is there a question you’d like to ask President Obama about what he just said?

Imagine if a referee asked the players, or the coaches, if there was something they’d like to add about the last call made on the field. Oh wait, that actually happened. And we all know how that turned out.

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13 thoughts on “Was Jim Lehrer a Replacement Moderator?

  1. I actually thought that the debate was far more interesting for what Lehrer did and did not do. I thought the specific format of the debate (“you have two minutes to answer”) would have constrained it in a way to make it not just less interesting, but less informative. There may be an argument that the moderator should put “feet to the fire” and be more confrontational. I understand the idea behind it, but I have a natural skepticism towards it.

    It reminded me of Bush vs Gore Debate 3, which was up until now the best debate I watched live. BvG-3 still beats this one in terms of entertainment value, but this one seemed more… I don’t know… insightful?

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    • I should probably note, that listening to it rather than watching it, the debate doesn’t come off nearly as lopp-sidedly, I don’t think, even being as liberal as I am.

      What did you find insightful about it, out of curiosity? Being that you’re on the high-information end of the voter spectrum, I’d be curious what you felt you learned from it.

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      • I found it indicative that Romney is willing to acknowledge (or even advance the notion that) things are more complicated than the soundbites he’s been putting out. He’s at least willing to tip his hat towards concerns that he has up to this point seemed dismissive of. Perhaps the biggest thing for me personally is that he seemed much more in his own element taking the posture he took last night than he has in the more recent past taking on the right-wing moniker. A lot of people will dismiss that as irrelevant, but I’m not quite willing to.

        On Obama’s side, his ownership of Obamacare and his attempts to sell it. He didn’t do a remarkably great job on that, but the interest was there. There was also a discernible lack of interest in running against the GOP congress. Both of these surprised me and I consider them to be important going forward (or at least where he wanted to go forward).

        To be honest, I tend to be dismissive of the actual stances that politicians take in debates, and their specific proposals. So I’m reading a bit more into abstract things.

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  2. Romney made Lerher his biotch. I’ve seen several replays of his exchanges with Lerher and they make me wince. Romney was downright rude and disrespectful, obsessed with “the rules” and making sure he got the last word. This strategy isn’t new to Romney. He pulled similar stunts during the Republican primaries and said stunts didn’t make him appear likeable but more like the school yard bully or the guy in class who always blurts out the answer before anybody else gets a chance.

    I don’t know if the results would have been different had Lerher done a better job moderating. Obama blew several chances to blow Romney out of the water on Romney’s prevarications. He’s yet to master the pithy response. However, I did think that Lerher’s questions were lame. How many minutes did he spend formulating them? This was the best he could do?

    I disagree with Will in that I found vast swaths of the debate to be boring. Next time I clearly need to watch the debate beer in hand.

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  3. I read some liberal commentary this morning and wonder if we were watching the same debate. I actually thought it was a pretty dull affair. I worked late, so just watched them on the DVR without any commentary before or after. Romney was definitely on offense and left a few pitches hanging out there that Obama didn’t hit. Otherwise, Romney was going through point by refutations and Obama was rambling. I ended up turning it off just before the closing statements but was really surprised to see Sullivan and Chris Matthews freaking out. The debates never play out like a a screeching hour of Hardball. Thank God. Is that what they were hoping for?

    These debates aren’t aimed a me, I was never going to change my vote and I don’t pretend to know how it played to undecideds in the swing states (the only voters that ever matter, right?). The memorable lines for me were “All you folks under 55 better listen to this part” and “Are your plans just so great for the middle class that you’re afraid to show them to anyone?” I’m predisposed to take Romney’s proposals with a grain of salt; Bush cured me of believing anything I hear from Republicans in debates, so I am sure I am a bad judge at knowing which lines Mitt was especially pleased with.

    Maybe the next two will be more interesting than that one.

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    • My husband, the quant analyst, actually thought Obama one. He found Romney frenetic, unfocused, and repetitive, and saw Obama as responding coolly with a decent command of the facts.

      Go figure.

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      • It was a strange, almost of wonky debate. I think it is something of a pattern with liberals to think they will win any debate on the facts alone so their disappointment is par for the course this morning. And no matter what, Romney was going to declare himself the winner. That those two things happened at the same time is either coincidence or one of the first signs that somebody is awake at the wheel in the Romney campaign.

        It’s funny, but I would bet that if Obama had veered as far to the right as Romney did to the center, the liberal critics would be going even more crazy. Do conservatives mind at all that Romney introduced a rather new platform last night? Democrats have been tacking to the center in the primaries since 1984 at least, so my sense is that they wouldn’t cotton to going even further rightward in a debate. But there seems to be a sense of persecution among conservatives and evangelicals, so maybe they are able to shrug off as a necessary evil the need to speak differently in mixed company?

        I know that last sentence is rough on conservatives, but it’s just a thought, sticky stuff on the wall and all that.

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  4. Lehrer was terrible.

    And his questions reflected his biases as a white, comfortably middle-class, straight dude in spades.

    That is to say, even if his questions had been asked, the questions themselves were wholly inadequate and made a joke of the notion that this was about “domestic policy”. Should’ve just come out and said it was an economic debate.

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    • During the ‘cast, I actually asked what the third debate was going to be precisely because I wondered if they had separated economic issues from social issues (and socio-economic like immigration). Maybe they’ll focus on the social issues in the town hall, but I agree that it was a pretty glaring omission.

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