The biggest loser of Tuesday’s presidential debate wasn’t Barack Obama or Mitt Romney; it was Candy Crowley. When the CNN correspondent decided her job as moderator was to declare one of the contenders right and the other wrong, she undermined what should be an impartial process of deciding who gets the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the next four years.
Ms. Crowley spontaneously “fact-checked” Mr. Romney on the question of whether the president clearly labeled the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror.” Her interjection saved President Obama from an embarrassing line of questioning in the short term, but the clumsy move may have done him more damage in the long run.
Michael D. McCurry, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates and White House press secretary under President Clinton, said he thought Ms. Crowley was just changing the topic to move the debate along. “We did get a vibrant, interesting, balanced and informative engagement,” Mr. McCurry told The Washington Times. “That’s what we wanted.”
By the most objective measurement possible, Ms. Crowley failed to provide balance. After assuring Mr. Obama “the timekeepers are all working,” she proceeded to hand the Democrat three minutes more than Mr. Romney to make his points. That’s not balanced.
Fortunately, the debate commission’s efforts to make the debates more lively succeeded in diminishing the relevance of such tricks. Instead of spending 90 minutes reading talking points at each other, the less rigid structure of the discussion encouraged candidates to challenge each other directly to reveal the depth of their policy disagreements.
In this, Mr. Romney shined. He boiled down his refutation of Mr. Obama’s last four years to one simple sentence: “Government does not create jobs.” It showed that, when pressed, the former Massachusetts governor would fall back on a set of bedrock conservative principles. At the same time, it was obvious Mr. Obama isn’t accustomed to being challenged. Nor did it help Mr. Obama’s cause that Ms. Crowley was mercilessly fact-checked after the debate. It’s not the job of a moderator to insert opinions into the discussion, and Ms. Crowley’s unwanted contribution was particularly misleading.
While it’s true Mr. Obama used the word “terrorism” the day after the Benghazi assault, he did so after recalling the remarks he had delivered the previous morning at the Pentagon to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” he said in his Sept. 12 Rose Garden speech. This lone mention of terrorism was nearly identical to his Sept. 11 remarks at the Pentagon, where he said, “No act of terrorism can ever change what we stand for.” This line was delivered several hours before the Benghazi tragedy unfolded.
More attention has been brought to the administration’s rapidly collapsing foreign policy fiction because Ms. Crowley crossed the line from journalistic impartiality into partisan advocacy. As the bipartisan debate commission looks at how to further improve the process, it ought to consider picking just one moderator willing to give the Republicans the eight minutes and 44 seconds they’ve been cheated out of over the course of three debates thus far.
Richard Diamond is Managing Editor for Opinion at The Washington Times.