Poor Jim Lehrer. You can be relatively certain that you’ve lost a debate when you try to distract people from what was said to how well the moderator did his job. By all counts—even the ever-liberal Bill Maher—Mitt Romney easily won last night’s presidential debate. It was obvious that Romney was more prepared, and more passionate. Obama looked lost and overwhelmed. He certainly didn’t come across as the “leader of the free world.”
But what is most telling is the negative criticism for moderator Jim Lehrer. A debate moderator’s job is to keep order and to keep the discussion moving along. Although Lehrer tried repeatedly to do his job during the debate, the participants repeatedly ignored him. Romney set the tone early, telling Lehrer when he was finished speaking instead of allowing Lehrer to limit his time. This move brilliantly made Romney the “alpha male” of the whole evening and put Obama and Lehrer both back on their heels. From this point on, Romney ruled the debate stage. At one point, Romney told Lehrer that he liked him, but this was immediately after he told him that he would pull federal funding from PBS. It was the verbal equivalent of a punch and a hug at the same time.
Lehrer was never fully “in control” of the debate, and Democrats and Republicans both have valid points in their criticism of his performance. This was the 12th presidential debate that he moderated so he is no stranger to the territory. But he was ill prepared to handle a very prepared and eager Mitt Romney. Bill Maher tweeted that “Lehrer sucked” and that “Obama looks like he DOES need a teleprompter.” Ouch. And this is coming from one of Obama’s biggest fans.
But it wasn’t just Lehrer’s inability to throttle the strong personalities of the two candidates; it was also his seeming inability to articulate his questions. The structure of the debate was known in advance. Lehrer had his questions prepared beforehand, yet he still couldn’t seem to ask them in any sort of comprehensible way. Many of them were vague and general, rather than specific and pointed. They were more like interrogative talking points than they were actual debate questions. It is no wonder that each candidate was easily able to “pivot” the question toward what they really wanted to discuss, rather than actually answering the question itself. Lehrer could only sit by and watch the rhetorical sparks fly. Arch-liberal Rachel Maddow said that “Romney spent much of the night battling not just President Obama, but also Jim Lehrer.” Then she summed it all up with: “And Mr. Romney won every exchange.”