Moderator gone wild: Romney and Obama campaigns unite in questioning Crowley???s role

Mark Halperin of Time reports on some unusually bipartisan criticism of Candy Crowley, the CNN anchor scheduled to moderate Tuesday???s town-hall debate:

In a rare example of political unity, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have expressed concern to the Commission on Presidential Debates about how the moderator of the Tuesday town hall has publicly described her role, TIME has learned.

While an early October memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns and the bipartisan commission sponsoring the debates suggests CNN???s Candy Crowley would play a limited role in the Tuesday-night session, Crowley, who is not a party to that agreement, has done a series of interviews on her network in which she has suggested she will assume a broader set of responsibilities. As Crowley put it last week, ???Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ???Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z???????

In the view of both campaigns and the commission, those and other recent comments by Crowley conflict with the language the two campaigns agreed to, which delineates a more limited role for the moderator of the town-hall debate. The questioning of the two candidates is supposed to be driven by the audience members themselves ??? likely voters selected by the Gallup Organization. Crowley???s assignment differs from those of the three other debate moderators, who in the more standard format are supposed to lead the questioning and follow up when appropriate. The town-hall debate is planned for Tuesday at 9 p.m. E.T. at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

The debate agreement specifically states that the moderator isn???t supposed to rephrase those audience questions, ask her own follow-ups, or change the subject.  She???s just supposed to watch the clock and keep the debate moving along according to schedule.

But as Halperin notes, Crowley herself never signed on to the terms of the debate, and he notes there???s no evidence she was ever asked to sign such an agreement.  The rules merely stipulate that she be given a copy of the rules.  And judging by her comments, including some made after she became aware that both campaigns were displeased with her attitude, Crowley apparently views those rules in exactly the way Geoffrey Rush???s Captain Barbossa explained the Pirate Code in Pirates of the Caribbean: ???The Code is more what you???d call ???guidelines??? than actual rules.???  Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, debate viewers!

The controversy over Crowley???s apparent intention to disregard the debate rules echoes the criticism I offered of Martha Raddatz???s awful performance at the vice presidential debate, an almost comically biased affair in which she let one astonishing whopper after another slide from Joe Biden, while arguing incessantly with Paul Ryan.  The problem with letting Crowley take control of the debate to ask, ???Hey, what about X, Y, and Z???? is that her personal memory and judgment are the only factors defining X, Y, and Z.  That will contradict the intended spirit of the town-hall format, in which the audience questions are supposed to shape the debate, not provide springboards for the moderator???s imagination.

Given that we don???t have anything like an impartial media culture, it???s interesting that the Obama team is so nervous about Crowley???s attitude.  The UK Daily Mail suggests that both campaigns are working to lay some ???blame the moderator??? groundwork for post-debate spin, but offers one other possible reason Team Obama might prefer to take its chances with the audience:

CNN has been aggressively promoting Crowley’s role in the debate. The network, whose ratings are slumping, is hoping to use its chief political correspondent’s time in the spotlight to its advantage.

Crowley is the first CNN anchor to moderate a general election presidential debate since the 1988 face-off between George HW Bush and Massachusetts Gov Michael Dukakis.

President Obama is set to launch an all-out assault on Romney in Tuesday night’s debate, including attacks on the republican’s time at Bain Capital.

So Obama???s planning to go back to the tedious anti-Bain rhetoric that already failed to do him a lot of good, even when he had the national stage entirely to himself during the post-primary Romney media blackout?  That strategy probably wouldn’t hold up well under questioning from a news anchor with a long memory.  And if CNN is looking to put itself back on the map by having Crowley throw out some headline-producing tough questions, Obama has two reasons to be worried: as the first debate demonstrated, he???s not nearly as good at handling such a grilling as Romney, and Obama has an appalling record to defend.

I like Mitt Romney???s odds of successfully explaining various Bain Capital investments from the late Nineties better than Obama???s chances of defending the years 2009 through 2012??? especially since the latter is far more relevant to 2012 voters than the former.  The portion of the electorate that isn???t already in the bag for Obama simply is not going to care more about how Mitt Romney managed his money a decade ago than how Obama spent their money over the last four years.  But even if Crowley deviates from the format and it helps Romney, it’s still wrong for her to do so.  Not only does it violate the agreed-upon terms for this particular debate, but voters benefit far more from watching candidates interact with each other and the electorate than watching them spar with media figures.  The media already has plenty of opportunities to interview those candidates.