Trading Places: It's Time to Trim the Debate Moderators' Role

As this campaign season draws to an end, doubtless many will comment on what was right and what went wrong for each party. Let me beat the crowd by stating whatever the outcomes of the Congressional and state races the notion of Republicans continuing to allow Democratic operatives posing as newsmen and women to act as moderators in candidate debates is one of the most inexplicably stupid blunders of all. And yet each election it is repeated. Let this be the last time.

Here are some names and incidents that should be engraved forever on the RNC steps and in each republican officeholder’s quarters:  George Stephanopoulos, Gwen Ifill, Charlie Gibson, Candy Crowley, and James Pindell.

George Stephanopoulos

George, a key figure in the Clinton Administration, went on (with no journalistic experience) to become a newsie at ABC. In 2012 during one of the (too many) Republican candidate debates he surprisingly hit the candidates with a question about contraceptives -- certainly an odd issue for a presidential debate. Within weeks the Democrats launched their “War on Women”. Do you suppose this was a coincidence? Or, like me, do you think this was the first shot in a planned campaign, designed to appeal to single women which focus groups had accurately pegged as vulnerable to a campaign organized around emotional, appeals not rational, considerations?

Gwen Ifill

In 2008, this PBS correspondent, moderated the debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin without having disclosed that a book she’d authored, The Breakthrough scheduled to come out after the election, was highly complimentary to Obama and would be more saleable if he won. American Thinker’s Lee Cary detailed how biased and often uninformed her questioning was:

Here’s one of my favorite examples Cary gave:

Here's [an] Ifill bias-premised question:

"Governor and Senator, I want you both to respond to this. Secretaries of State Baker, Kissinger, Powell, they have all advocated some level of engagement with enemies. Do you think these former secretaries of state are wrong on that?"

This was a backdoor effort to support Barak Obama's "no preconditions" statement made during his nomination campaign. Ifill's bias is that there's nothing wrong with what Obama said.

Ifill knows that, diplomatically, "some level of engagement with enemies" goes on all the time, often through back channels using third parties. The idea that we don't communicate with our enemies is a Beltway media myth.

Hers was a cleverly formed question, since a "no" answer to the closed-ended query (a "yes" or "no" type question) with which it ends (Do you think...?) would sustain the notion that what Obama said is consistent with, and analogous to, what the former Secretaries of State say. Ifill uses the question to establish conceptual parity without the opportunity to challenge the premise.

Charlie Gibson

In 2008, Gibson, then with ABC news, famously implied in his questioning that Palin was ignorant of the Bush doctrine, without explaining which doctrine to which he was referring. Charles Krauthammer blasted this ill-educated entrapment noting there were over time four different “Bush doctrines”:

If I were in any public foreign policy debate today, and my adversary were to raise the Bush doctrine, both I and the audience would assume -- unless my interlocutor annotated the reference otherwise -- that he was speaking about the grandly proclaimed (and widely attacked) freedom agenda of the Bush administration.

 Not the Gibson doctrine of preemption.

Not the "with us or against us" no-neutrality-is-permitted policy of the immediate post-9/11 days.

Not the unilateralism that characterized the pre-9/11 first year of the Bush administration.

Presidential doctrines are inherently malleable and difficult to define. The only fixed "doctrines" in American history are the Monroe and the Truman doctrines which come out of single presidential statements during administrations where there were few other contradictory or conflicting foreign policy crosscurrents.

Such is not the case with the Bush doctrine.

Yes, Sarah Palin didn't know what it is. But neither does Charlie Gibson. And at least she didn't pretend to know -- while he looked down his nose and over his glasses with weary disdain, sighing and "sounding like an impatient teacher," as the Times noted. In doing so, he captured perfectly the establishment snobbery and intellectual condescension that has characterized the chattering classes' reaction to the mother of five who presumes to play on their stage.

Candy Crowley

Four years later CNN’s Candy Crowley gave Obama three minutes longer in the debate than she gave Mitt Romney; ignored the memo of understanding of the parties by asking follow-up questions and commenting on questions asked by the audience and the candidates’ answers, and famously and erroneously, insisting Romney was in error when he said Obama was not telling the truth when he claimed that the day after the Benghazi attack he had characterized it as “an act of terror”. As anyone who paid attention knew, both Obama and Hillary Clinton had claimed at that time it was a “spontaneous demonstration” occasioned by a video, and refused to call it terrorism.

James Pindell

This round, James Pindell is the uninformed moderator with his thumb on the scale.  He is a local reporter for WMUR (ABC) .In a debate in the hotly-contested New Hampshire senatorial race between Scott Brown and Jeanne Shaheen in which Stephanopoulos served as the chief moderator he wrongly suggested that Brown didn’t know the geography of the state. Not coincidentally, Shaheen’s main campaign thrust was that Brown was an outsider who didn’t know the state as she did. Unfortunately for Pindell, Brown was right and he was wrong. Pindell has since apologized, but it is unclear whether that is sufficient to undo the damage. Both Stephanopoulos and ABC refused to comment or add to the apologies to Brown. This time, the moderator’s intervention was so extreme (or the practice becoming so noticeable) that both NPR’s Cokie Roberts MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosts publicly criticized the action.

“Having that little guy just sort of ask that same little question over and over again like that and he was just trying to be so smart, and I think he [Scott Brown] handled very it well,” Roberts said. “He didn’t go the Christie route and say ‘enough with Sullivan County.’ He said ‘no, with all due respect,’ and he didn’t get flustered by it. That was the point -- the point was to fluster him and show him as a carpetbagger. I think that is the biggest strike against him [Brown]. But it ended up being a much bigger strike against the member of my trade.”                 

In my view, the “trade’s” role   in political debates has already been sufficiently discredited -- putting their thumbs on the scale, erroneous interjections, ignoring debate rules, asking irrelevant questions and largely working to advance their own interests or those of their political friends rather than to aid the conduct of useful, honest debates.

It’s time to end this charade. Questions to candidates ought to be on point (that is, on issues within the bailiwick of their offices), accurate and neutral, set before hand, and the only moderation should be a timekeeper. TV figures should have to find another way to promote themselves, their party and their careers. Campaigns are about the candidates, not about the moderators -- time to trade places and put the candidates and voters’ interests first.