With Obama-Romney II exactly one week away, it is time to address the most frustrating aspect of presidential debates: gutless moderators.
I like Jim Lehrer. Jim Lehrer is a friend of mine. But in last week’s debate, he allowed Obama and Romney to treat him like a jailhouse bitch. They talked over him at will, ignoring his efforts to impose time limits or change topics. It was painful to watch.
This is not a new phenomenon. Filibustering is what candidates do, especially when 67 million Americans are watching. The moderator is nothing more than a token, there to give the illusion that a neutral force is controlling the chaos.
Unfortunately for my friend Jim Lehrer, the new debate format unveiled last week exacerbated the impotence of that illusion. With candidates addressing each other directly in six, wide-open, 15-minute segments, the effect was like unleashing two pit bulls. Well, except that one of them acted more like a sleepy poodle.
If the President’s advisers have anything to say about it, Obama will butch it up at the town meeting October 16th at Hofstra. This time, the lucky moderator is CNN’s Candy Crowley, the first woman to direct traffic at a presidential debate in 20 years. She can hold her own, and anybody else’s, too.
Still, the question remains: How, exactly, can any moderator get candidates to shut up?
“I tried many times and was unable to do so,” Lehrer, a veteran of 12 presidentials, told me last week. “There are limits to what anybody can do to silence anybody … In this kind of format, the candidates are there to talk to each other.
“You ask, you do your very best, but if somebody does not want to honor that request, they pay the price.” Actually, it’s voters who pay the price, by being subjected to endless talking points instead of the kind of intellectual rigor that real debates are designed to inspire. Because of that absence, democracy pays the price, too.
For the sake of democracy, this shameless manipulation must be stopped. In that spirit, I offer a few modest proposals to all future moderators of presidential (and vice presidential) debates:
1. Get a gong. Moderator E.D. Hill’s wimpy little bell did nothing to silence Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart in their “Rumble in an Air-Conditioned Auditorium” Saturday night. At one point, O’Reilly even turned to Hill and dryly observed, “Oh, are you still here?” A massive gong, however, preferably rung by a shirtless bodybuilder, sends an unmistakable message.
2. Pipe “Hail to the Chief” at the loudest possible volume into the offending candidate’s microphone. The decibel level alone will drown out any well-rehearsed remarks, or in Romney’s case, “zingers,” that were being blah-blahed at the time. Once the candidate’s hearing returns, real answers are sure to follow.
3. Two words: laser taser. When a candidate ignores more than two verbal warnings, a jolt to the solar plexus should do the trick. As a precaution, an EMS worker should be seated to the right, or left, of each participant—and the moderator, in case of a misfire.
And if none of these methods works, pull the fire alarm and leave the building. Do it for democracy.