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.