Five ways tonight's moderator can rescue the VP debate from itself
She didn't ask for this; certainly not from a guy who has never moderated a major televised debate in his life.
But as a professional viewer and audience advocate, I'm going to offer a little unsolicited advice for ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz, now in the world's cross-hairs as the moderator of tonight's vice presidential debate.
She'll be refereeing an event with tremendous meaning for partisans on both sides -- Republicans who want to see Paul Ryan continue challenger Mitt Romney's momentum and Democrats pulling for vice president Joe Biden to rescue his boss, President Barack Obama.
But what viewers of tonight's 9 p.m. showdown really need is an advocate of their own in charge of the debate. To that end, here's my thoughts on what Raddatz needs to achieve in order to reach the ultimate goal -- creating a debate which informs viewers and challenges the candidates.
1) Challenge misstatements on both sides. Presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer told me he never intended to directly challenge the candidates, pushing them instead to challenge each other. The problem with that approach, is it can mean both candidates wind up trading half-truths, slogans and outright lies with no one to call them on it. A good moderator does more than keep the debate trains running on time; when Romney insists his health care plan covers pre-existing health problems or Obama says 50 million people will lose health insurance if his Affordable Health Care Act is repealed -- both ruled "mostly false" by PolitiFact -- then the moderator is viewers' best hope for an independent voice to challenge the obfuscation.
2) Ask specific questions. Lehrer's style of open-ended questions - "can we agree, voters have a clear choice between the two of you?" -- mostly allows for bloviating and vagaries. Voters need specific answers to really judge how they feel about candidates. Bearing in mind that undecided voters can often be low-information voters, they need a debate which puts as many specifics on the table as possible; can't get those without specific questions.
3) Explain stuff the audience might not know. One of Lehrer's questions to Romney was "do you support Simpson/Bowles?" But he didn't actually define Simpson/Bowles -- which is a shorthand for recommendations to fix the fiscal crisis advanced by a bipartisan commission created by President Obama. (remember those aforementioned undecided/low-information viewers?) As other critics noted, he also didn't point out that Romney's running mate Paul Ryan voted for those recommendations, and the question itself was obvious and too broad (is he really going to support an initiative created by the guy he's running against?)
4) Don't be afraid to insist on some rules. Cool as it was to see both men forced to compete directly last week, the lack of rules made a coherent debate more difficult. Too many rules are a pain, but no rules turns a debate into a televised, barely genteel shouting match. It also diminishes respect for the moderator, which makes it easier for participants to shrug off their questions as the debate proceeds. If the moderator is ineffectual, why should anybody listen to him (or her)? Which means important questions don't get answered.
5) Don't be afraid to look like a jerk. Politicians know that most mainstream TV people have an Achilles heel; they are deathly afraid the audience will stop liking them (a close second, for most traditional TV journalists, is looking partisan). So candidates keep talking during a debate, knowing that the moderator may not have a choice but to look like a jerk by insisting they follow the rules (Obama seemed to play that card last week when he admonished Lehrer for interrupting him early, then proceeded to talk far over his remaining time). I'm hoping Raddatz, who doesn't have to worry if her evening newscast or weekend political show will suffer if her image takes a hit, will see it as a personal mission to make the candidates respect her, her questions and her role in the event.
Otherwise, why have a moderator at all?