Two moderators provoked lively, interesting debates this cycle. Two did not.
Image by Pool / Reuters
BOCA RATON, Fla. — "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the foreign policy presidential debate, did a fine job of staying out of the way and not becoming the story. But Schieffer let both candidates ramble about domestic policy for large portions without an effort to steer them back to the subject at hand, leading some on Twitter to inquire about his health. At one point the candidates were talking about class sizes.
The performance brought uncomfortable comparisons to Jim Lehrer, moderator of the first debate, who was panned by his TV rivals for letting the candidates walk all over his attempts to enforce time limits and topic changes. 2012 was a fraught year of intense scrutiny for the moderators, but if anyone remembers who moderated at all, they'll remember that the fiery debates were stoked by Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley — not the ponderous ones shepherded by the two more expected older male moderators.
In a year where it seemed impossible that a moderator could do their job without an explosion of criticism in the online media and on Twitter, Raddatz and Crowley got the best reception — though Crowley did catch some flak for disobeying the Commission on Presidential Debates' rules and asking the candidates follow-up questions. Raddatz was almost a universal hit; some people half-jokingly even wanted to vote for her for president.
In the spin room after the debate, some surrogates were careful not to pick favorites when it came to surrogates.
"It's like picking amongst your children," said Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki. "I'll never do it."
She was echoed by deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, who said, "I love them all."
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the debate "90 minutes of pure gold."
He defended the fact that the candidates often strayed from foreign policy, saying "Obviously they were both looking to find ways to bring it back to domestic policy. I think it's important to talk about and clear why we would pivot to the economy, and a strong economy is important to having a strong presence around the world."
"I don't really get into the judging games with the moderators, but I like Bob Schieffer a whole lot, I think he's a good man. I don't have a problem with Candy either," Priebus said. "I haven't really dealt with Jim or Martha Raddatz."
The candidates on Monday seemed often to agree and weren't pressed to outline their differences, leading to 90 minutes of amiable, bad television. Raddatz, who pressured the vice presidential candidates for specifics and got them going against each other, or Crowley, who forced the candidates to clarify their positions with follow-ups and enforced time rules, managed to keep their debates moving quickly and on the topics prompted by the questions.
It's not as if the CPD chose totally out-of-the-box people to moderate the debates in any case. There's little room for innovation in something as codified as a presidential debate. But the fact that both of the really interesting debates were moderated by women emphasizes the staleness of the traditional model, represented by Lehrer and Schieffer.