Making matters worse, neither candidate spoke directly to camera. The audience
at the University of Denver may have enjoyed it, but for tens of millions watching
on TV, it was awkward and unsettling. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney addressed
most of their comments to the moderator, rather than the home audience, meaning
they were often looking off to the side. Only in his closing remarks did Romney
wisely speak directly to viewers at home.
Lehrer supported the idea of cutting the number of questions from nine to
six. Even at that, he was so unable to control the process that there was barely
time for the final question.
Worse, Lehrer chose a style of questioning that is both unfair and usually
a roadblock for the candidates. “What are the major differences between
the two of you on jobs?” was his first question of the night. Most of the
questions that followed asked about the “differences” – on
education, on social security, etc. Candidates should never be asked to define
their opponent’s positions, only their own. It’s up to the moderator
to identify the differences, and Lehrer was unable or unwilling to do it.
“Do you have a question for President Obama?” Lehrer asked Romney
early on. It was exactly what Lehrer asked John McCain in ’08. McCain said, “No.” Romney
didn’t even bother with that; he simply launched into several minutes of
Lehrer said on a recent PBS broadcast that he favors a free-wheeling format
in which the candidates question each other. They don’t care to do that,
which is why, for example, Romney was never asked about his “47 percent” remark
in which he said people who don’t pay federal income tax consider themselves
victims, and Obama was never asked about his remark that if he didn’t turn
the economy around he’d be a one term president.
The event was such bad television that many Americans, including the prized “undecided
voters,” probably gave up and changed the channel. For those who stuck
with it, Romney was the apparent winner – but more on style points than
hard facts, many of which were never challenged by the president or the moderator.
The co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr.,
told me two weeks ago that his group relied on Lehrer and Bob Schiefffer, 75,
as moderators because they were impartial journalists who could be counted upon
to interrupt when necessary and make the candidates stick to the facts. The CPD
will now have to rethink the process.
As to the content, much was written before the debate that Romney practiced
far more than the president. It showed, particularly in the closing arguments,
as Romney painted a clear picture of how his administration would differ from
Obama’s, while the president seemed to be winging it. That ad-lib style
hurt Clint Eastwood at the GOP convention in Tampa and it hurt Obama in Denver.
Thanks to the hype, many Americans probably tuned in expecting a raft of “zingers” from
Mitt Romney. There were few if any. Voters might have hoped to see the candidates
go after each other. They really didn’t. Pundits prepared long lists of
possible questions. None was asked.
There are still two more presidential debates, one on foreign affairs, the
other using the so-called “town hall” format in which the questions
come from undecided voters, selected by the Gallup Organization. Frank Fahrenkopf
told me, “The public loves town halls, but the media hates them.”
After watching Jim Lehrer in Denver, even media know-it-alls might find themselves
looking forward to giving the public a shot.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.