In search of a good debate moderator

I thought Martha Raddatz was an awful debate moderator on Thursday night.  Those who praise her performance puzzle me.  Her job was not to argue with either of the candidates, but especially not to repeatedly attack Ryan, to the point where Biden occasionally became a bizarrely grinning and cackling spectator.

I wasn’t looking for “balance” in the sense of having her go after Biden a couple of times, either.  It wasn’t her job to gently remind Angry Joe that he voted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That was Paul Ryan’s job.

Raddatz advanced too many specific questions on foreign policy (which happens to be both her and Biden’s areas of expertise) while devoting remarkably little time to the domestic issues that most voters are deeply concerned about in this election (which happens to be Ryan’s strength.)  Her closing question – “If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?” – was weird, pointless, and unworthy of a serious debate, at a moment of historic importance.

I liked Ryan’s surprised response, although I was quietly hoping he’d just say “Clown question, bro.”  In fact, he said, “Honesty, no one else could?  There are plenty of fine people who could lead this country.  But what you need are people who, when they say they???re going to do something, they go do it.  What you need are, when people see problems, they offer solutions to fix those problems. We???re not getting that.”  He did well to immediately spot and question the fundamental flaw in the question: political leaders are not supermen, and America has gotten in a lot of trouble by waiting for the right colossus to come along and fix all our problems.

A debate moderator should be bringing up topics, more than formulating questions.  Keep each candidate to the allotted time, but let them address each topic as they see fit, and give them a chance to probe each others’ responses.  It’s really not practical to expect the moderator to police answers for truth or consistency, and it’s highly likely that attempts to do so will end up favoring one side or the other.  Biden’s loud whopper-a-minute approach is actually an advantage when the moderator is supposed to play Truth Cop, because there’s just no way to keep up with it all.  Raddatz could have pointed out that Biden’s “$5 trillion Romney tax cut” and “$6400 Medicare tax increase” lines were discredited nonsense, but Ryan did it, and that’s how it should be.

The moderator has access to precise electronic timekeeping.  There was no reason for Raddatz to allow Biden to whine about time when she knew perfectly well he had received more time than Ryan.  There was no reason to allow Biden to interrupt Ryan even once, let alone 80 or more times.  His mike could have been shut off during Ryan’s turns to speak, after he was given a firm warning upon the first offense.  Biden came off like an obnoxious jerk because Raddatz allowed him to.  It might not do him any favors in the long run, because of how bad it made him look to undecided voters, but it never should have been permitted in the first place.  American voters needed to see a debate, not a shouting contest.  Point, counterpoint, final thoughts, move on to the next topic.

Why is this so difficult for the media to manage?  Debate moderation is not an arcane science.  Debate formats are agreed upon in advance.  There’s no reason that a journalist’s partisan entanglements should prevent him or her from preparing a solid list of topics, impartially enforcing the rules of etiquette, and managing the clock.

Update: The Media Research Center audited Raddatz’s performance as moderator:

Out of 48 questions and follow-ups, a plurality (19, or 40%) incorporated a pro-Obama/Biden or anti-Romney/Ryan agenda, vs. 25% (12 questions) that skewed in the other direction and 35% (17 questions) that were neutral or purely information-seeking.

Raddatz showed almost no bias in her foreign policy questions, which split down the middle: eight pro-Romney vs. seven pro-Obama (not counting the neutrals). But on domestic issues, especially on the budget and taxes, she joined Joe Biden in pounding on Paul Ryan, with a remarkable dozen questions that incorporated liberal campaign themes, compared to just four based on a conservative premise, a stark three-to-one liberal tilt.

MRC president Brent Bozell gave Raddatz credit for “taking Joe Biden to task for the Obama Administration???s failures in Benghazi” and asking “the hard, pointed questions that the administration has managed to dodge for weeks,” but concluded that “over the course of the 90-minute debate the wheels came off, especially when she shifted to domestic economic policy.”  He summed the debate moderator’s performance up by saying it was “not as bad as conservatives think, and not as good as liberals are stating.”