Apologists for President Obama’s weak performance in Wednesday night’s debate have found a scapegoat. It’s Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchor who served as moderator. The charge? He let Mitt Romney run amok—that is, talk more—by not enforcing the time limits on speaking.
This is untrue. As it turns out, Obama spoke four minutes more than Romney did in the 90-minute debate. But since he had so many pauses, stumbles, and instances of “Ah…ah,” Romney actually got in more words, 7,891 to Obama’s 7,350. Romney simply had more to say—and that surely wasn’t Lehrer’s fault.
Rather than criticized, Lehrer should be credited with moderating one of the most interesting, fast-paced, and substantive presidential debates of all time. He managed this by interrupting the candidates as little as possible. He ignored the time clock and the planned segments and permitted the candidates to carry the debate, which they did. Obama may not have meant it when he called the debate “terrific,” but it was.
To have shown such restraint must have been difficult for Lehrer. Anchors are not like the rest of us: they have bigger egos. They want to be players in debates, not mere bystanders and clock watchers. When they butt in, it stymies the candidates, prevents them from delivering full explanations and making elaborate but important points.
Until the Obama-Romney debates, I’d been a supporter of having panels of reporters ask questions. I had a special interest: I was a panelist in the first Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984, the one in which Reagan’s performance was as bad as Obama’s.
But I’ve changed my mind after seeing what a single moderator willing to minimize his role can do. If there had been a panel last week, the debate would have been choppy, less interesting, and sometimes boring. We would have learned less about Obama and Romney.
Lehrer plans to retire from moderating debate. He should reconsider and the Presidential Debate Commission should have him moderate the next two Obama-Romney debates and the vice presidential debate. If not that, at least sign him up for 2016.