How to Fix the Debates: Better Moderators

Published on
by
The Nation

How to Fix the Debates: Better Moderators

by
John Nichols

The last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place 150 years ago today in the politically volatile Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois.

As Stephen Douglas, the former Illinois Supreme Court Justice who was the incumbent senator, took the stage, a prominent Illinois Democrat, Dr. Thomas Hope, attempted to ask the candidate a question.

The exchange followed this course:

DR. HOPE: Judge, before you commence speaking, allow me to ask you a question.

SENATOR DOUGLAS: If you will not occupy too much of my time.

DR. HOPE: Only an instant.

SENATOR DOUGLAS: What is your question?

DR. HOPE: Do you believe that the Territorial legislatures ought to pass laws to protect slavery in the territories?

SENATOR DOUGLAS: You will get an answer in the course of my remarks.

The crowd applauded, and that was the end of any attempt to "moderate" the debate between Douglas and his Republican challenger, Abraham Lincoln. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths of what was said in Alton, as in the other cities on the Illinois debate trail of 1858, was said by Lincoln or Douglas.

Modern debates are, of course, as fully defined by their media moderators as by the candidates. During the primary season, there were several debates where a moderator--particularly CNN's Wolf Blitzer--did more talking than most of the candidates.

Moderators have not been quite so verbose this fall, as the Commission on Presidential Debates puts its imprint on the process. The commission, a corruption of democracy run by former Democratic and Republican party chairs, so carefully manages formats and rules that those allowed to sit in the moderator's chair know full well that they must conform.

And they do, miserably.

To be sure, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are somewhat at fault for the desultory nature of the debates so far. Obama is cool to the point of being frigid, hyper-cautious in his responses and so calculating that even when he delivers a zinger it sounds too rehearsed. McCain is too hot, so desperate to make a connection that he bobs about like a demented troll and steps on his own best lines.

Theoretically, the performances of the candidates should have been improved by prodding from able moderators.

Not this year.

The first presidential debate faltered as Jim Lehrer tried without success to get Obama and McCain to engage in a serious discussion of the financial meltdown that everyone else in the country was talking about.

The second presidential debate was just weird. Tom Brokaw, hamstrung by the ridiculous CPD rules, actually seemed at times to be debating the candidates about how to handle follow-ups. Here's a sampling:

OBAMA: Tom, just a...

BROKAW: Senator McCain...

OBAMA: ... just a quick follow-up on this. I think...

MCCAIN: If we're going to have follow-ups, then I will want follow-ups, as well.

BROKAW: No, I know. So but I think we get at it...

MCCAIN: It'd be fine with me. It'd be fine with me.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

BROKAW: ... if I can, with this question.

OBAMA: Then let's have one.

BROKAW: All right, let's have a follow-up.

MCCAIN: It'd be fine with me.

OBAMA: Just -- just -- just a quick follow-up, because I think -- I think this is important.

BROKAW: I'm just the hired help here, so, I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: You're doing a great job, Tom.

Ouch.

It is a reasonably safe bet that Bob Schieffer--who did not embarrass himself as the moderator of the 2004 presidential campaign's third debate between George Bush and John Kerry--will do a better job of managing tonight's debate in Hempstead, New York, than did his predecessors in Oxford, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee. (Why these debates are being held in states that are not even remotely "in play" this year is a question for another day.)

But Schieffer will still be constrained by one of the CPD's many structural assaults on the democratic process. Because the commission decides who gets the honor of taking the stage with the candidates, moderators play it safe -- so as to be invited back for a repeat performance in some future election season.

Under the current rules, we'd be better off with no moderator. Just let the candidates go at one another, as Lincoln and Douglas did. The truth is that Obama and McCain, constrained by their shared desire to appear presidential, could pull it off without a problem.

Ideally, however, presidential debates would be moderated by journalists, thinkers and activists who could force the candidates to actually say something.

Here are five suggestions:

AMY GOODMAN: The host of Democracy Now takes no prisoners. She challenges politicos of both parties with questions that no one else has the guts or the understanding to ask. Dial back to her Election Day 2000 interview with then-President Bill Clinton if you want a sense of Goodman's skill set. And she has only gotten better over the ensuing eight years. No one would bring a broader range of issues to the stage and no one would do a better job of pressing the candidates to address them.

PAT BUCHANAN: The paleo-conservative commentator, television personality and three-time presidential candidate has big gripes with both candidates and both parties. He thinks Obama's a social libertine and McCain's an imperialist. He would challenge both candidates aggressively, using barbs, wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of the domestic and foreign-policy matters in which he has been intimately engaged -- often controversially, which should be a moderator qualification -- for more than four decades.

NOMI PRINS: A former managing director at Goldman Sachs and head of the international analytics group at Bear Stearns in London, Prins left Wall Street some years ago to write and talk about corporate corruption and the scandals, crises and meltdowns she so presciently predicted. Now a senior fellow with Demos, her 2004 book, Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America (The New Press) was chosen as a "Best Book" by The Economist, Barron's and The Library Journal. Prins knows how to discuss finance, the current crisis and possible fixes in the language of Wall Street and Main Street. She could lead the candidates through a real discussion of the economic issues that are the definitional concerns of this campaign.

CAROLE COLEMAN: The toughest interviewer of George Bush during his presidency was not an American journalist. It was the Washington correspondent for RTÉ, Ireland's national network. Coleman interviewed the president in the summer of 2004 and actually demanded that he answer questions. The White House was furious. Coleman was undaunted. "Should I just have been more deferential to George Bush?" she mused. "I felt that I had simply done my job and shuddered at the thought of the backlash I would surely have faced in Ireland had I not challenged the president on matters that had changed the way America was viewed around the world." Imagine a debate moderator who actually thought her duty was to the voters, as opposed to the candidates and the CPD.

RALPH NADER: The nation's leading consumer activist should be on the tonight's stage as an independent candidate who has qualified for ballot positions in 45 states -- as should Green Cynthia McKinney and Libertarian Bob Barr. But Nader's history of challenging both parties, his disdain for the compromises of official Washington and his refusal to countenance political doublespeak is what makes him moderator material. He would stir things, to be sure. But Nader's deep understanding of and respect for the republic and its potential could conceivably introduce Obama and McCain to their better angels.

John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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