|Back in 2008, Mr. Lehrer
said the Obama-McCain debate would be his last. But just like politicians who
are reluctant to abandon pet projects, he agreed to return this year to pursue
his dream of an event in which the candidates ask each other questions and wrangle,
like guests on Sunday TV talk shows. When the approach was introduced in a limited
way four years ago, both candidates were reluctant to engage. Frustrated, Mr.
Lehrer announced, "I'm just determined
to get you to talk to each other. At least, I'm going to try."
This year, he helped persuade the Commission to reduce the number of questions
from nine to six, allowing for 15 minutes of discussion on each. The Commission
prefers a stage set-up in which the candidates and moderator are seated at a
table, talk show style, but as happened in 2008, a last minute request from the
Obama campaign may again result in one debate with traditional podiums.
CBS’s Bob Schieffer, 75, is also returning. In '08, he got off to a
strained start with the discussion format when he asked Sen. McCain, "Would
you like to ask (Sen. Obama) a question?" McCain said, "No," and
went on to deliver one of his talking points.
So, with much riding on this year's debates, are the new formats really the
best way to go? Are there no qualified moderators other than the two who keep
postponing retirement to serve? And isn’t the so-called town hall approach
inherently weak because it relinquishes the questioning to undecided voters who
may be least qualified for the task?
Most of the CPD’s decisions are rooted in voter research conducted 20
years ago, when it was determined that the public prefers a single moderator
and more room for follow-up. Voters also like the town hall approach, which was
first tried in 1992 and gradually modified in hopes of avoiding occurrences like
in 2004 when the first question of the night from an undecided voter, directed
to Sen. John Kerry, was: why do my friends think you’re “wishy-washy?”
Founded in 1987 after the League of Women Voters gave up trying to get the
major parties to agree on debate details, the CPD must now deal with shifts in
journalism and social media. In selecting the two main moderators, it appears
the commission sought television vets who were least likely to care about modern,
interpretive journalism – effectively eliminating anyone employed by Fox
News Channel or MSNBC, as well as anyone working in print or online.
I asked the commission’s co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., a former head
of the Republican National Committee, about criteria used to select moderators. “With
the new format, we really need two pros,” he said. “We need people
with great experience in politics but who don’t have an ego problem and
feel they have to make points for themselves.”
Mr. Fahrenkopf said his group “looked hard to find an Hispanic,” without
success, and was surprised that there “were not a lot of (qualified) women.” Candy
Crowley of CNN was picked to moderate the town hall event.
The town hall approach may appeal to voters conceptually, but placing responsibility
in the hands of those who have so far failed to make up their minds is a bit
like asking struggling students to write the class curriculum. This year the
commission is taking an even riskier approach by cutting the number of question-asking
undecideds, picked by the Gallup Organization, to just 20 people, who will sit
in what Mr. Fahrenkopf describes as “easy chairs.”
As to the discussion format in the two main debates, he says “podiums
feel like walls; the tenor changes when people sit at tables.” Others
might argue that while tables work on Sunday TV, such a set-up is not necessarily
what Presidential debates are about. Late Thursday, the Obama campaign successfully
lobbied for podiums in the first debate.
Just before the telecast of the first Obama-McCain debate in ‘08, Jim
Lehrer told those in the hall, “I’m going to take a deep breath and
hold it for 90 minutes.”
This year, until the new formats are proved worthy, the best advice for any
voter expecting an epiphany might be, don’t hold your breath.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.