I have just one plea for Bob Schieffer, the next 70-something TV anchor preparing to quiz the two candidates for president in the third and final presidential debate Oct. 15.
Please, actually moderate the debate. Please.
Becuase, if there's been any clear loser in these presidential election debates, with a VP clash and two presidential candidate forums behind us, it has clearly been the moderators.
NBC's Tom Brokaw was the most recent eminence to fall prey to these "debates," in which the candidates talked over their time limits, disregarded questions they didn't feel like answering and were handed mushy queries like "Is health care a commodity?" and "Tell me what the Obama or McCain Doctrine would be regading use of force in a stopping a humanitarian crisis." (Um, would the doctrine be something like 'genocide is bad?')
To be fair, Brokaw had a little help. As usual with town hall-type debates in this league, the average-joe questioners were a bit too intimidated to lean into their questions, which had all the spice of inquiries which had been carefully pre-chewed and reassembled by a staff of NBC News producers.
It's an old argument, I know: That negotiating over formats and the constant spin about media bias has helped defang the modern-day presidential moderator. But if candidates feel free to disregard the stated and unstated rules of the debate -- I mean, when has a candidate started one of these things by actually admitting they won't necessarily answer the questions, as Palin did last week? -- shouldn't moderators feel free to take off the gloves, too?
It didn't much matter what the questions were, anyway -- often they were just a springboard for both John McCain and Barack Obama to launch into the answers they had prepared for their own specific goals. For McCain, the goal was to attack Obama while looking like he is offering real policy alternatives, and for Obama, it was to stand up to Old Man McCain with a cool assurance that made the senior senator look like the impetuous hothead of the two.
Because both men largely succeeded in their efforts, Obama won -- both because he had inexplicably low expectations going into the debate (hasn't this guy been taking public questions during campaign stops for, like 18 months now?) and because McCain's increasingly erratic campaign has the 26-year veteran of Congress struggling to stay in the game. Don't believe me: Fox News, CNN, CBS and MSNBC all polled or consulted groups of undecided voters and concluded Obama won.
I didn't take much exception to McCain referring to Obama as "that one" or seeming to imply that a black questioner had never heard of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac -- though I think McCain did himself no favors with those references. Instead, I think his increasingly personalized attacks on Obama made him look petty, while his opponent focused on looking presidential and above the fray.
My favorite moment came when Obama insisted on responding to McCain more directly, pushing Brokaw into bending the rules of the evening so they could have -- gasp! -- an actual debate. Circling each other like impatient used car salesmen, Obama and McCain tangled on health care policy and foreign policy in a way that felt less like two successive stump speeches; too bad that moment came more than halfway through the 90-minute debate.
I'm hoping Schieffer wil take a cue from that moment, and take every opportunity to remind each man when his time for speechifying is over, and push them to actually answer questions they are asked.
Because it is possible to have a debate -- even under the mushy rules OK'd by the presidential debate commission -- if the moderator takes his title a bit more seriously.