Master Debaters?

Moderators, moderation, and a modest proposal

That can’t have been the last one. Oh, I’m so angry. Hey, CNN (or MSNBC, or ABC, or NPR)—what if we have just one more? Please? In Pennsylvania? Or anywhere? It doesn’t even have to “count,” or anything…it could just be, you know, for fun. No? Well, that’s sad. But I guess I’ll have to accept it: last night’s was, in all likelihood, the last debate of the 2008 primary season.


But, you know, oh-blah-di, oh-blah-da, and whatnot: life goes on. I’m over it now, pretty much. Perhaps the five stages of grief go more quickly once you’ve had several months to come to terms with your loss; I’ve known for a while, after all, that this day would come. And I knew full well last night that I was probably watching the last of the primary debates’ forty-one Mohicans. I just didn’t think saying goodbye would be this…hard.

But, as I hum “My Heart Will Go On” quietly to myself, it’s worth stepping back, for a moment, to consider what, exactly, I’ll be keeping safe in my heart during these long months until the general-election debates. What, exactly, ended last night? And when it comes to these debates—what, exactly, is the point?

Because, for all the entertainment they offer—for all their anything-could-happen live broadcasts and their slick sets and their pretensions to provoking Profound Political Discourse—the debates are pretty much just pageants. And it’s pretty much always been that way. (See the first televised debate, 1960’s Nixon/Kennedy match-up, and the fact that the word most commonly associated with that monumental event is “stubble.”) The Shadow of Nixon—specifically, his five o’clock shadow—has hung heavy in the air over each subsequent debate, making participants acutely aware of the fact that debates, when televised, are as much about Image as Message. And, as a result, making each debate a defensive, rather than offensive, endeavor: as far as candidates are concerned, debates are less about sharing their policies with voters, and more about not screwing up. (Messages can change, after all, but a gaffe is forever.)

Debate moderators certainly didn’t make it that way—it’s the nature of the live-video beast—but they haven’t helped matters, either. Not only do they record each of the candidates’ on-air missteps, but they also, in their efforts to trip them up, litter the candidates’ paths with bunches’ worth of rhetorical banana peels. (See Brian Williams, asking Clinton, last night, to make a blanket statement of denial of the allegation that her camp leaked the photo that started Garb-gate. Since he was asking Clinton to account for the behavior of the thousands of people associated with her campaign, there was no way she could have answered that question to anyone’s satisfaction—and Williams had to know that.)

Russertism, as it’s now known, is by no means unique to Russert: the Quest for the Gotcha Moment is probably the most common thread in the debates. As we’ve noted numerous times, conflict is the debates’ common denominator—conflict not only between the moderator and the candidate, but also among the candidates themselves. And that’s been particularly evident this time around because, when it came to the Democratic Party’s Final Two, the candidates’ platforms and policies were nearly identical. Which meant that the debates were, more so than they have been in a while, controlled experiments: keeping candidates’ positions fairly constant, the moderators’ questions had to extend their reach—and the debates revealed as much about the moderators as the politicians they questioned. (Brian Williams, last night, to Obama: “How were her comments about you unfair?” Russert to Romney, during the Florida GOP debate: “Do you trust Senator McCain and Mayor Giuliani on the issue of being tax cutters?”)

Take Chris Matthews and, as Liz discussed, his “you bagged your Marlin!” praise of Tim Russert. Far be it from me to read too much into anything the excitable pundit says on live air—who knows, the Marlin line might simply have been an excuse for the sometimes-defensive Matthews to name-drop Ernest “Serious People Read My Work” Hemingway in his commentary—but there’s something revelatory about the metaphor Matthews used to describe the relationship between the debate’s moderator and its participant. By casting that relationship as the embodiment of the ultimate epic conflict—Man versus Beast—Matthews revealed the way he, at least, approaches that pairing: the moderator, victorious in a foregone-conclusion kind of way (the beast’s death as part of The Order of Things); the candidate, spirited but outmatched, succumbing to the moderator’s skewer.

Russert, his polite bafflement at Matthews’s commentary notwithstanding, seems to ascribe to a similar view; judging by the combative tone of his questions last night—and throughout this debate season—Russert, apparently, prefers his fish grilled.

Which is not, by the way, to offer a blanket vilification of Russertism, its methods, or its practitioners; politicians spin, and someone needs to be there to unwind their words and parse their platforms. But Matthews’s unique take on candidate flip-flopping (“she was in the boat, floundering around!”) makes an apt metaphor for the current tone of the debates’ discourse—one that puts politicians on edge, making them hesitant to answer questions for fear of “gotcha!” recriminations; and one that casts the dialogue in terms of comments-to-be-defended rather than comments-to-be-extended. And who gets cheated? Yep: voters.

Last summer, as the primary races were just starting to build momentum, Newt Gingrich and the journalist Marvin Kalb sent a letter to the candidates proposing a series of ninety-minute discussions between the ultimate nominees, concentrating on issues of their choosing, in the nine weeks running up to the 2008 election. “The 34-pages of rules that dictated the 2004 presidential debates…have reduced the presidential debate process to 30-second sound bites and rehearsed, consultant-crafted talking points,” they wrote. “Missing from the debate are substance and solutions.” The kicker to the proposal—what would keep it true to its Lincoln-Douglas inspiration—was that the proposed debates would have no moderators.

It’s rare I get to say this, but: I’m with Gingrich. A debate should be more than Meet the Press with bathroom breaks. Perhaps having no press to meet would finally allow candidates to have a real conversation.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.