Jim Lehrer Lets Beltway Issues Dominate Debate

Moderator Jim Lehrer waits for the start of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 201
Moderator Jim Lehrer waits for the start of the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)

Moderator Jim Lehrer was roundly criticized across the political spectrum for his hands-off style after Wednesday night's presidential debate. As the dust settled afterward, liberal critics also had another issue with Lehrer: the questions he asked.

Wednesday was the only debate of three devoted solely to domestic issues, according to the guidelines set up by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Over the course of the night, Lehrer asked questions on nine different topics: job growth, the deficit, tax reform, entitlements, health care, federal regulation, the role of government, education, and legislative gridlock.

But nowhere in his 90 minutes, many critics noted, did Lehrer ask about a variety of issues that people outside of Washington, D.C., might be concerned about.

There are 10.8 million underwater homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth -- but they didn't merit a question. Although President Barack Obama prepared for the debate near an area of Las Vegas that has been hard-hit by the housing crisis, the word "foreclosure" does not appear in a transcript of the debate. In his opening statement, Romney did talk about the plight of a mother whose family had just lost its home -- but he didn't get into specifics on housing. The disappointing results of the administration's Home Affordable Modification Program, which was supposed to help keep people in their homes, also did not come up.

Climate change and the environment more broadly were also missing in action on Lehrer's watch. Romney and Obama did tussle over oil and natural gas production, but rising sea levels and temperatures were not referenced.

Social issues like women's rights were "obscured" by economic questions, one critic noted. Gay rights advocates hoped that with Obama's announcement of support for marriage equality, LGBT issues might merit a question. They did not, the Advocate noted -- although Obama did mention the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" as a middle-class issue.

Twelve people died during the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre -- a death toll that gun control advocates hoped might finally spur debate on curbing gun violence. That did not happen, nor were any other urban issues raised.

And, while the $831 billion stimulus ranks as one of Obama's signature domestic policy achievements, neither he nor Romney mentioned it by name. Instead they sparred over specific elements of it, like support for renewable energy development.

That left Time magazine's Michael Grunwald, who recently penned a book about the Recovery Act, sorely disappointed.

"If even Obama won’t defend the last four years, then what’s the point of four more years?" Grunwald asked.

Grist's David Roberts, meanwhile, directed his scorn at Lehrer.

"It was like a parody of center-right Beltway conventional wisdom: the first three [questions] were on taxes, deficits, and entitlements," he said. (The first question was originally about jobs, but Lehrer did quickly let the discussion shift to taxes.)

"In every case, the implied question was, 'How and when are you going to cut them?' That, apparently, is what 'the economy' means to Very Serious People in a presidential race."

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