Presidential debates have assumed new prominence

Among the features of the presidential race that has become a staple of this quadrennial exercise is the debate. This year, with four debates having been scheduled by the Commission on Presidential Debates and with no shortage of buzz surrounding each of them, both in the run-up and aftermath, it would be interesting to see what tweaking, if any, the commission looks to do the next time this comes around. Because the individual in the moderator’s role has generated a lot more controversy this time than is usually the case, one would expect that the selection of moderators and what the rules of the game are, pertaining to them, will certainly be a matter for the bipartisan commission’s review.

Time magazine’s Mark Halperin wrote, preceding the town hall format debate between the president and Mitt Romney, that moderator Candy Crowley had publicly expressed views on what her role would be, that seemed to conflict with guidelines agreed to by the candidates and the commission. In truth, those guidelines, as reported by Halperin, cast Crowley as little more than a timekeeper in the proceedings — a role that, despite its high-profile attractiveness, any seasoned, self-respecting journalist/broadcaster might understandably decline. Crowley’s handling of the actual debate was, for the most part, quite professional…never mind the predictable howling of right-wing elements that have a uniformly negative reaction when bragging rights hopes get dashed. The view from that quarter was that Crowley displayed pro-Obama bias. No doubt playing large in that characterization by conservative demagogues was her correcting Romney when he tripped up himself about when the president first described the Libyan consulate attack as an act of terror.

Ideally, moderators are supposed to exercise even-handed control over these jousts. This should pose no major challenge, except when, like Romney in debate No. 1, one of the combatants arrogates unto himself or herself the right to not be deferential to the moderator at any given time. Dan Quayle, when he debated Al Gore as vice president in 1992, assumed a totally obnoxious “attack dog” posture for that entire encounter. It was precursor to a surliness that endured through the morning he and George H.W. Bush gave way to the Clinton administration, Quayle never able to approximate the civility and grace Bush showed that day.

In this year’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden was pilloried by the customary gaggle of conservative suspects for, among other things, the smile the vice president has had pasted on his face over the decades he has been a known quantity in Washington. There would have been none of this right-side squawking, naturally, had Biden not made hash of Paul Ryan when they got into it. The griping proceeds, on cue, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and kindred spirits when their guy takes it on the chin. That debate’s moderator, Martha Raddatz, went into that battleground with unusual attention focused on her and how her handling of the role would turn out, given the pounding Jim Lehrer had taken for the job he did (or didn’t do) when Obama and Romney first squared off.

Even with the series of debates now history, one cannot but feel for Lehrer, whose reputation as a pro in the business always rated gold-standard admiration both from peers and the discriminating public familiar with his work during a long tenure as the face and guiding force behind the nightly PBS news hour. The obvious question, in wake of the debacle, was whether accepting the commission’s invitation to be a debate moderator once again was a judgment call the now retired Lehrer got wrong. Maybe the downside of no longer being actively in the business was a consideration to which Lehrer ought to have been more sensitized. Whatever, it sure made for a most depressing tableau seeing Lehrer’s passive reaction to Romney’s manhandling tactics, more so with Obama’s curiously uninspired presence not helping a bit. Romney’s crowning insult to Lehrer about PBS falling to the presidential axe if he is elected, captioned an undistinguished departure from the nation’s TV screens of someone who had brought such distinction to a career as communicator.

It’s clear that all the hoopla surrounding the debates this year has catapulted this phenomenon into altogether different territory in the business of electing a president. Back in 1960, with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, it was ground-breaking TV. In intervening years a debate had to produce some notable faux pas or memorable line by one of the participants to attract more than passing interest among the hoi polloi. When Ronald Reagan looked and sounded unfocused and lost along the way of his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, intrigue quickly centered around their follow-up encounter for any further evidence the sitting president was permanently out to lunch. Reagan’s next debate performance decisively short-circuited hopes of a Mondale upset. Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you are no John Kennedy” putdown of Dan Quayle in 1988 will forever rank among the debate classics.

This year, perhaps due in largest measure to that absolutely mystifying turn by President Obama in the first debate, the debate factor looks to be shedding its “sidebar” status for a more central place in the process. We might even indulge the notion that this could be a tiny step in a very long road to meaningful campaign finance reform.