There was a moment during last night’s debate when Tom Brokaw said, with an edge to his voice:
Since the rules are pretty loose here…
Translation: The candidates are flouting their time limits!
… I’m going to add my own to this…Let me ask you as a coda [to a regular voter’s broad question about “huge unfunded obligations for Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs”]: Would you give Congress a date certain to reform Social Security and Medicare within two years after you take office?
Otherwise, Brokaw was (or, tried to be) largely a stickler for The Debate Rules (“The Pact,” as Brokaw at one point called it). The Rules are restrictive and favor talking points and are generally Bad For America, yes, but they’re your Rules—our Rules, now—so let us adhere.
May I remind both of you, if I can, that we’re operating under rules that you signed off on and when we have a discussion, it really is to be confined within about a minute or so.
This, after both senators took the opportunity of Brokaw’s “Who would you appoint Treasury Secretary” question to flog their talking points—beyond their allotted thirty seconds.
And, after McCain ran long on his evasion of Brokaw’s request to list, in order of priority, health care, energy, and entitlement reform (Social Security and Medicare):
I’m trying to play by the rules that you all established. One minute for discussion.
And, in denying Obama’s request to answer McCain’s response to Brokaw’s question of “How would you, as president, try to break those bad habits of too much debt and too much easy credit…?”:
Well, look, guys, the rules were established by the two campaigns, we worked very hard on this…
This was followed by Brokaw’s “coda” moment (Brokaw has a change of heart, breaks Rules, goes off-script and asks candidates, “Would you give Congress a date certain to reform Social Security and Medicare within two years after you take office?”) While Obama answered the “coda” question (“Well, Tom, we’re going to have to take on entitlements and I think we’ve got to do it quickly. We’re going to have a lot of work to do, so I can’t guarantee that we’re going to do it in the next two years, but I’d like to do in the my first term as president.”), McCain did not. But Brokaw—Rules Man once again—followed McCain’s non-answer with:
Thank you, Sen. McCain. I’m going to stick by my part of the pact and not ask a follow-up here.
No! Ask the follow-up! It’s your own question, sir! Don’t thank the candidate and move on! Break The Pact! Facts before Pacts! (Debatable whether this specific Brokaw question was worth another go-around, but in principle…)
When you decide to be a stickler for time limits (time-clock sheriff), it’s hard to simultaneously stickle over anything else… like what the candidates say (or don’t say) during (and over!) their allotted seconds.
Or, in the words of two of 2,800 participants in a “Citizens Media Scorecard” (an online panel of volunteers recruited by Free Press—a “national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media”—to “rate the conduct of moderator Tom Brokaw” last night):
“Like other moderators before him, Brokaw allowed the senators to avoid answering questions and meander to their own comfort zones,” said one volunteer rater.
“[Brokaw] kept saying their answers were too long but didn’t focus enough on what they were saying,” commented another.
The panel thought that Brokaw’s decision not to fact-check the candidates or challenge their spin was a problem: 83% of Obama supporters and 75% of McCain supporters wanted to see more challenging follow-up questions from the moderator.
Within this group, that’s some widespread (and bi-partisan!) discontent with at least one key aspect of Brokaw’s moderating efforts. The people want “challenging follow-up questions from the moderator.” Who knew?
Bob Schieffer, moderator of the final presidential debate next week, take note.
Speaking of Schieffer, CNN’s Dana Bash this morning had a suggestion for the moderator-in-waiting:
BASH: I’m not sure exactly what the rules are [for the final debate]. We do know it’s not a town hall format. ..Bob Schieffer…is going to be the moderator. If he learned from what happened not just in this debate last night, but the first one, perhaps he is going to be a little bit more of a maverick, I think we may call him, with regard to just tossing out the rules. Look, the reality is, these campaigns… helped create the rules and then they kind of rolled over them….[A] couple years ago Ted Koppel said, Your rules, you don’t want them, let’s throw them out. It will be interesting to see if Bob Schieffer does that… to allow these candidates to mix it up despite what their campaigns have negotiated.
Permission to (cringe) go “maverick,” Bob Schieffer! Break rules! Break furniture! Break dance! Do whatever you have to do to squeeze from the candidates something like actual answers/information to your, please, very thoughtful and timely questions!
(I don’t remember Ted Koppel-as-debate-moderator’s Let’s Toss The Rules moment. If there was one, perhaps there is something to be learned from revisiting it. I’ll take a look.)
Liz Cox Barrett is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Kalispell, Montana. She worked as a newspaper journalist in Denver and Kalispell for 20 years.