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Debate's Worst Performance? PBS' Jim Lehrer

I’ll leave it to the horserace pundits to decide who won tonight’s debate and to the voters to decide who will win the election. I know who lost: Jim Lehrer, PBS, old media and the myth of the “sensible center.” Tonight’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, got utterly, totally, savagely pwned. The Lehrer/PBS school of moderation is fundamentally unequipped to deal with the era of post-truth, asymmetric polarization politics—and it should be retired. Time and time again, Romney deviated from the positions he took to win the GOP primary, and neither Lehrer nor Obama was able to effectively press him on it. Obama at least tried, at times.

The gulf between political reality and mainstream media mores has never seemed so wide and unbridgeable. Frankly, I came away with one new opinion, and that was to agree with Mitt Romney that PBS should go. (Big Bird, I’ll rethink this in the AM.)

But beyond the numbing boredom and bewilderment that tonight’s debate format and moderation caused, there are real costs. Not necessarily to the candidates—the media has called the debate for Romney, but I don’t think it will move the needle enough for Romney to win—but to democracy. 

True, tonight’s format hurt Obama most, but that was aggravated by his own curious choices: to not call out Romney more forcefully on his dissembling about jobs, the deficit, healthcare and education. Where was the vigorous assault on Romney’s disdain for the 47 percent? Or Bain capitalism? Or the go-for-broke indictment of GOP obstructionism and Paul Ryan’s blueprint? Aside from the opening litigation on Romney’s tax plan—where was the lawyer in the White House? Where were the moments when Obama—or Lehrer—challenged Romney on his dissent from other Romneys?

And where were the questions about reproductive rights, gay rights, pay equity, immigration, climate change, poverty or schools? We didn’t get to them—because Jim Lehrer got pwned! Or was just plain disinterested.


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The format seemed to encourage Obama to maintain his likeability, while moving rather aggressively to agree with Romney whenever he could, instead of going on the offensive. This is exactly the political sensibility—the faith that the mainstream, nonpartisan arbiters of truth (vs. truthiness) would intervene to adjudicate the debate justly—that has so crippled the Obama administration’s first term.

Here’s an example of my main point: Obama actually did attempt in instances to distinguish himself from Romney—for example, on the claim by Romney, now familiar, that Obamacare cuts $716 billion from Medicare. This has been widely debunked. But Obama’s response was to pivot to Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare. That’s not a bad debate move—Americans love Medicare, even if they don’t always know it is a government program—but it left largely uncontested the validity of Romney’s claim. Here’s where Lehrer might have step in with some facts, or a hard question. But no—that did not so much happen, even though Twitter, Facebook and any number of media sites instantly rebutted Romney’s claim. But instead, how nonsensical is this following exchange:

LEHRER: Talk about that in a minute.
OBAMA: …but—but—but overall.
OBAMA: And so…
ROMNEY: That’s—that’s a big topic. Can we—can we stay on Medicare?
OBAMA: Is that a—is that a separate topic?
LEHRER: Yeah, we’re going to—yeah, I want to get to it.
OBAMA: I’m sorry.
LEHRER: But all I want to do is go very quickly…
ROMNEY: Let’s get back to Medicare.
LEHRER: … before we leave the economy…
ROMNEY: Let’s get back to Medicare.
ROMNEY: The president said that the government can provide the service at lower cost and without a profit.
LEHRER: All right.
ROMNEY: If that’s the case, then it will always be the best product that people can purchase.
LEHRER: Wait a minute, Governor.
ROMNEY: But my experience—my experience the private sector typically is able to provide a better product at a lower cost.
LEHRER: All right. Can we—can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice—a clear choice between the two…
ROMNEY: Absolutely.
LEHRER: … of you on Medicare?
ROMNEY: Absolutely.
OBAMA: Absolutely.

Oh. My. God.

Richard Kim

Richard Kim is the executive editor of He is co-editor, with Betsy Reed, of the New York Times bestselling anthology Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, An American Nightmare. He has taught at New York University and Skidmore College. Follow him on Twitter @richardkimnyc.

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