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Moderators Have Ruined Presidential Debates. Let’s Get Rid of Them?

Get rid of moderators? How about getting rid of debates? They're stupid and showcase theatrics, not a candidate's core beliefs or policies.

Ronald Reagan campaigned on reducing taxation and the size/impact of government. You didn't need a debate to either agree or disagree with his approach. Yes, he was a great communicator, but he didn't need to debate someone to get his point across.

In fact, his greatest accomplishment during the debates was how he dealt with the question of his age. And that famous comment was not an exchange with his opponent but a response to a moderator's question. So much for removing the moderator...haha.

BTW, Reagon was 74 years old when he made the above comments. A relative spring chicken by today's standards. I doubt Joe would currently be that spry on his feet.

Moderators Have Ruined Presidential Debates. Let’s Get Rid of Them.

Viewers and voters are better served by a direct exchange between candidates than by journalists acting as inquisitors.

By Tevi Troy, WSJ

Aug. 24, 2023 12:00 pm ET

Moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier prepare for the first Republican presidential primary debate in August 2015. PHOTO: ANDREW HARNIK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

When the participants in this week’s first Republican primary debate were getting ready for their high-stakes exchange on the national stage, one of them prepared with a run and by limiting his coffee consumption. At the event, he wore the apparent GOP uniform of a blue suit and red tie, argued with multiple candidates, chided the audience, and declared former President Donald Trump “the elephant not in the room.” But this was no GOP hopeful. It was moderator Bret Baier of Fox News.

Baier and fellow moderator Martha MacCallum are solid journalists. But presidential debates would be more useful for voters if the format were changed. It’s time to eliminate moderators, who have a long history of making themselves part of the story, acting as inquisitors looking to trip up the candidates.

The most famous example of a journalist overstepping is CNN’s Bernard Shaw in 1988. In the second presidential debate, Shaw asked the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis a hypothetical question about his wife: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis’s bland answer—“I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime”—cemented his reputation as a bloodless technocrat, and he went on to lose the election to George H.W. Bush.

Shaw’s question, which he came up with at 2 a.m. the night before the debate, struck many viewers as inappropriate, eliciting audible gasps in the press room. But Shaw himself was proud of it, later telling an interviewer, “I was just doing my job, asking that question. I thought of [Edward R.] Murrow taking on [Senator Joseph] McCarthy. That was the essence of what I wanted to be.”

Many moderators since have taken their cues from Shaw, seeing it as their role to ‘take on’ the candidates.

Many moderators since have taken their cues from Shaw, seeing it as their role to “take on” the candidates. In a 1992 town hall debate, ABC’s Carole Simpson squelched an attack by President Bush on Democratic nominee Bill Clinton by interrupting him with “Mr. President, I’m getting time cues and with all due respect…” When Bush tried to answer an audience question about how the national debt affected him, Simpson interrupted with “She’s saying, ‘you personally’” and “Has it affected you personally?” Later Bush graciously asked the audience to give Simpson a round of applause, but Bush aide Fred Steeper was more critical, saying at a post-campaign event, “You could tell that she didn’t want give and take among the candidates. She wanted to maximize questions from the audience.”

Complaints about moderators have only grown since then. During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Hillary Clinton complained that debate moderators had been too easy on her rival Barack Obama. She referred to a “Saturday Night Live” debate skit in which her character got tough questions while Obama received softballs from swooning journalists. At a February debate, Clinton said, “If anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.”

At another primary debate two months later, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson overcorrected, grilling Obama about his refusal to wear an American flag pin and his controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales panned the ABC team for their focus on “specious and gossipy trivia that already had been hashed and rehashed.” Obama himself complained at a campaign rally that debate moderators “like stirring up controversy, and they like playing gotcha games, getting us to attack each other.”

In 2012, it was the Republicans who were aggrieved. At a GOP primary debate in January, Stephanopoulos pressed Mitt Romney on whether he thought contraception could be banned. A frustrated Romney pushed back, saying, “George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising. States have the right to ban contraception? I can’t imagine that states would want to ban contraception.” The crowd booed, and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt later accused Stephanopoulos of “doubling and tripling down” on his “inane and irrelevant gotcha question.”

The perception of unfairness has led some candidates to attack moderators, making them even more a part of the story. At one GOP debate in 2012, CNN’s John King asked Newt Gingrich about his ex-wife’s allegation that he requested an open marriage. “I think the destructive vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” Gingrich responded. “I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” The audience cheered, and the exchange briefly boosted Gingrich’s campaign before he eventually lost the nomination to Romney.

Relations between moderators and candidates got even worse when Donald Trump entered the picture. When Fox News’s Megyn Kelly asked about Trump’s history of disparaging women’s looks, Trump went right at her, saying, “Honestly, Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me.” He caused an even bigger stir when he later described Kelly as having “blood coming out of her eyes. Or blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump’s behavior was appalling, but Kelly knew she was going to be part of the story, and prepared accordingly: “I had researched and rewritten my questions over and over again until I believed they were as tight and pointed as possible,” she later wrote in her memoir.

At the August 2015 Republican debate, candidate Donald Trump (left) made headlines by attacking moderator Megyn Kelly (right). PHOTO: JOHN MINCHILLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Of course, presidential debate moderators know they are part of the story; it’s why they prepare so hard. PBS’s Gwen Ifill said that “Moderating a debate means spending more time with briefing books than with your children.” According to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “The preparations are tough because what you’re trying to do is come up with something that will elicit a revealing answer that hasn’t been asked before and that they’re not prepared for”—implicitly admitting that she was playing “gotcha” with the candidates.

Instead of featuring moderators so prominently in presidential debates, the public would be better served by Oxford-style debates, in which candidates give opening statements and then rebut their opponents, engaging directly with one another. Candidates could then take audience questions and conclude with closing remarks. Time limits could be enforced with signal or buzzer, or by having the microphone muted when time expired.

TV networks would resist such changes because they like to showcase their high-priced talent. And for all their complaints, candidates themselves often prefer having moderators, because their questions are easy to predict and prepare for. In addition, railing against biased moderators gives candidates someone to blame if they perform poorly. Without them, candidates would have no one to blame but themselves.

Tevi Troy is director of the Presidential Leadership Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the author of four books on the presidency. In 2004, he participated in debate preparation for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign.

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