- - Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The first two presidential debates, and last week’s vice-presidential debate, had many unusual twists and turns. Mitt Romney put on the performance of his career in the first debate and beat the “greatest-orator-the-world-has-ever-seen” President Barack Obama. In the second debate, Mr. Obama won a close, heated contest with some zingers near the end. In the VP debate, the dignified Paul Ryan eked out a close victory over the buffoonish Joe Biden.

There was one striking similarity between the three debates: The moderators did a horrible job.

Jim Lehrer, former anchor of PBS’s NewsHour, moderated the Oct. 3 Obama-Romney debate (his 12th one). Liberals immediately complained he was a soft touch, giving Mr. Romney plenty of openings to control the debate’s tempo. Conservatives laughed at this accusation, but were displeased that the candidates, rather than the moderator, always seemed to be in charge.

When the Associated Press asked Mr. Lehrer about his moderating job, he said, “I may be seeing something that’s not there, but I can’t imagine emerging from this experience – I’m talking about myself – with any permanent scars. I’m very upbeat about it, and I don’t have any second thoughts.” Bully for him, but it seems like everyone else thought he had permanently scarred his reputation.

Martha Raddatz, an ABC News reporter, moderated the Oct. 11 Biden-Ryan debate. She put on a better performance, and seemed more in control. She also appeared to be more blatantly partisan. Here’s the most glaring evidence: According to RNC Chair Reince Priebus, Mr. Biden interrupted Mr. Ryan 82 times in 90 minutes. Sure, candidates in these debates will occasionally interrupt each other – but on 82 separate occasions? If the roles had been reversed, the liberal media would’ve had a hissy fit.

Where was Ms. Raddatz’s so-called powerful hand during this debate? Why did she allow Mr. Biden to laugh, mock and constantly interrupt Mr. Ryan? She should’ve known better, considering her direct ties to the president. (Mr. Obama attended the wedding of Ms. Raddatz and her ex-husband, Julius Genachowski, an old law school colleague.) Maybe she didn’t care.

Yet Candy Crowley’s dismal performance in the Oct. 16 Obama-Romney debate took the cake. For one thing, Mr. Obama spoke for four minutes longer than Mr. Romney. How on earth did the CNN reporter let that happen? Next, the debate ran 10 minutes over the allotted time, which probably drove the networks up the wall.  

Finally, Ms. Crowley interjected herself in the debate and came out with egg on her face. She admonished Mr. Romney for stating the president never called the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror.” Once the debate ended, it became clear she was wrong. Fact checks from The Washington Times and Washington Post showed a left-right dichotomy on her error in judgment. She even made a half-hearted mea culpa on CNN. What an embarrassment.    

No matter how you slice it, these things leave a bad taste in your mouth. Moderators are supposed to be engaging, maintain control of the debate flow – and above all, remain politically neutral. As time goes along, these criteria have become very sketchy. To see how we’ve gone from steady performances by Howard K. Smith (1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate) and Edwin Newman (1976 Ford-Carter and 1984 Reagan-Mondale debates) to the questionable performances by Mr. Lehrer, Ms. Raddatz and Ms. Crowley in five decades is depressing.

What can be done to improve the debate process and get top-notch moderators? Here are my four suggestions:

1) Moderators should be at arm’s length. No individual should have had a prior personal or business connection with the presidential candidates, vice-presidential candidates or political parties. It would also be wise to avoid ex-political candidates and former politicians. This would create an ideal scenario of political neutrality and fairness to the candidates, parties and debate process.

2) Create a left-right balance of moderators. If the Republicans and Democrats aren’t crazy about an arm’s-length moderator, there’s an alternative. The debates could have two moderators, one liberal, and one conservative. Instead of removing political bias from the debates, this suggestion would make it a political free-for-all. There would be some interesting left vs. right discussions, and it could be very entertaining for TV audiences.

3) Enforce time restrictions properly. Moderators should immediately set out the time each candidate has to speak, and stop anyone who goes over it. Another possibility is to include a loud bell or ring as a 15-second warning to wrap up comments. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’ll prevent candidates from always speaking over one another.

4) Ask pertinent questions. A moderator should remove the amount of fluff asked in a debate, and ensure all questions are pithy and intellectual. Be creative, and always think outside the box about issues like taxes, health care, capital punishment, military spending, etc. In other words, Ms. Raddantz’s abortion question shouldn’t have been the talk of the town; it should be the norm during a debate.

To ensure other political moderators avoid the Lehrer-Raddantz-Crowley model of mediocrity, there have to be major reforms. The once-bright, now shaky, future of political debates is at stake.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.