After the debate last Wednesday, many journalists criticized Jim Lehrer for getting “steamrolled” by the candidates, for losing control of the format. These journalists think that Lehrer should have inserted himself more into the conversation and asked tough follow-up questions to the candidates. I think this complaint against Lehrer is hogwash. And it comes from a class of professionals who seem to have an overinflated sense of their role in this process.
For once in a long time, we have two presidential candidates who can communicate and who have things to say. We’ve had many candidates in the past whose debate performances were filled with platitudes or malapropisms. Saturday Night Live once famously lampooned Vice President George H. W. Bush for failing to fill his allotted time with substance (see below). We are not going to have that problem this cycle, and the best thing that a moderator can do is get out of the way and let these candidates have at it.
This will be a surprise to the pundit class, but Americans really don’t care about moderators and whether or not they make their presence known. We like them to keep the candidates to roughly the same amount of speaking time, and to keep things fair (Obama actually had slightly more time that Romney in the last debate). Outside of that, moderators need to be in the background. We’d rather get to know the candidates. So word to the wise to moderators. You should decrease so that the candidates can increase. Don’t view the debates as your chance to win a Peabody award.
And that brings me back to Jim Lehrer. Peggy Noonan has it exactly right:
Jim Lehrer has been criticized as an inadequate moderator. He was old-school and a pro. He didn’t think it was about him. How quaint. He asked questions, allowed a certain amount of leeway to both candidates, which allowed each to reveal himself, and kept things moving. Most of the criticism seems to have come from those who hoped Mr. Obama would emerge triumphant. Mr. Lehrer should not take it personally. Every shot at him was actually a warning shot aimed at the next moderator, Martha Raddatz. She’s being told certain outcomes are desirable.
I hope this isn’t the lesson Ms. Raddatz is taking from this first debate because it would be the wrong one. We need more moderators like Lehrer, not less.
One more thing. Lehrer says that what we saw last Wednesday night was what he intended to do. Maybe the Peabody Award should go to him after all.