Presidential Debate Moderators Announced

A huge announcement for those of us who actually enjoy covering presidential debates. So for the other person reading this, hurray! The Commission of Presidential Debates announced the moderators for this year’s three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate.

Jim Lehrer of PBS will host the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, Colorado. Lehrer is a tried and true moderator, having previously moderated a staggering 11 presidential debates which takes him back to roughly the Harding-Cox debate. For the record there really was a presidential election that sounded like Hard Cocks. Makes Bush-Gore sound more reasonable, right?

Lehrer is 78 and has previously said that he would not moderate any future debates, but said he was coaxed back because of the new format for this debate. The new format will eschew the traditional lightning round of (1) question; (2) stock [insert party] talking point; (3) stock [insert other party] talking point; (4) recapitulation of the original talking point. Rinse and repeat. It looked frighteningly like this gem from a 1988 SNL skit:

This is the format that coaxed Jim Lehrer back

The debate will feature six 15-minute segments on broad domestic topics in an effort to encourage a more free-flowing discussion. One question opens each segment followed by two 2-minute statements and the remaining 11 minutes belong to Lehrer to follow up. This is probably the closest we’ll get to Will McAvoy’s elusive new debate format teased in this week’s Newsroom.

The more free-flowing question-and-answer sessions will require just as much preparation for the moderator, Lehrer said.

“Preparation is based on one driving force for me and that is to be relaxed enough to be able to listen to what the candidates are saying and react appropriately. … Not necessarily drafting these incredible questions that will bring tears to people’s eyes.”

This is an encouraging description. If this debate truly features a focused and stern moderator capable of holding the candidates to task on their answers and demanding precise follow-up, it could become the best debate of my lifetime (replacing the only good electoral debate I’ve ever seen between John Thune and Tom Daschle for Senate on an episode of Meet The Press hosted by Tim Russert). I have high hopes for Lehrer because his previous claim that he would not moderate again implied that he was fed up with the dumbing down of the process and this suggests that he has true faith in the opportunity presented by this new format. That or he’s just doing it to publicly announce that he is not Jonah Lehrer, after which he will drop his mic and walk out making the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gang sign (the “Corps”).

Candy Crowley of CNN will moderate the second presidential debate on October 16 in Hempstead, New York. This will employ the always irritating “town hall” format that essentially cedes genuine insightful questioning and discussion to the mob in an effort to seem “closer to the people.” The selection of Crowley is a welcome move since no woman has moderated a presidential debate since 1992, which for those keeping score was 20 years ago. And all it took to bring this to the attention of the Commission was a Change.org petition started by three New Jersey high school students (full letter is included in this story).

I’m a little disheartened that Crowley is stuck with the town hall debate because those presidential debates make it much more difficult for a moderator to shine — even if Crowley is prepared to ask tough follow-up questions or to call candidates on exaggerations, she’s under pressure to move on to the next question since most people inherently judge town hall debates by how many “ordinary folks” get to ask questions about boxers vs. briefs or whatever other high-minded question runs through their heads.

Governor Romney. Can you say anything about issues on this continent without claiming that President Obama was born there?

Bob Schieffer of CBS will moderate the third presidential debate on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Florida. This debate will follow the same format as the Lehrer debate, but focus on foreign affairs. I think it’s a little odd that they put the foreign affairs debate last. In an election dominated by domestic issues, it would seem as though the final debate should be on that subject. For this reason, I’m suspecting a lot of “quasi-foreign” topics like “global competitiveness” and “energy production” that are actually domestic questions in disguise. There are so many compelling foreign affairs issues from military readiness to Russian relations to Chinese involvement in African development to Mexican drug cartels. But I’m sure we’ll ask an Israel question, a terrorism question, and then move on. Lame.

Martha Raddatz of ABC moderates the sole vice-presidential debate on Oct. 11 in Danville, Kentucky. Raddatz is an accomplished foreign affairs and security correspondent. I cannot find any information on the format of this debate, but given that this debate will have to cover the range of domestic and foreign affairs issues, I worry that this is going to return to the old format of battling talking points. Which would be a shame because Paul Ryan’s strength is quoting massive strings of out of context statistics in an effort to confuse and flummox both his opponent and his audience, and a skilled moderator needs more time to pick at Ryan’s claims to keep the debate fair.