Why moderator Jim Lehrer might be getting worse debate reviews than President Obama
(UPDATE: About 67.2 million people watched the debate on 11 networks, a 28 percent rise over the first night of the 2008 debates when Barack Obama faced off against John McCain, according to The Nielsen Company)
"I hope Jim Lehrer gets the license plate of the truck that drove over him in this debate."
That was the learned assessment of Today show anchor Al Roker on Twitter following the end of the first presidential debate Wednesday, assailing the work of the PBS news legend.
The online network lit up with criticism of the semi-retired host's performance, as everyone from Bill Maher and Laura Ingraham to Rob Lowe and Chris Wallace blamed Lehrer for letting the pace of the debate be controlled by GOP challenger Mitt Romney. (the event was also the most-tweeted political event in history, drawing more than 4 million tweets, according to Fox News on Wednesday).
Lehrer's response, delivered to the Tampa Bay Times by an email from his spokeswoman, said: "I thought the format accomplished its purpose, which was to facilitate direct, extended exchanges between the candidates about issues of substance. Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow and I had no problems with doing so. My only real personal frustration was discovering that ninety minutes was not enough time in that more open format to cover every issue that deserved attention."
Romney, known for his strong debate performances, insisted he be allowed to respond to points made by President Obama even when the rules dictated the discussion should move on.
Both Obama and Romney regularly talked over the time allotted to them for responses, with the president even chiding Lehrer at one point when the moderator tried to break in. "I had 5 seconds left before you interrupted me," Obama said sternly, before cracking a smile, continuing for much longer than that time.
Lehrer seemed to decide early in the debate that allowing each man to make his case the way he wanted was better than refereeing the agreed-upon rules or interjecting with too many questions. But the practical result was that the debate often got bogged down in select topics -- huge amounts of time spent on discussing taxes and little spent on other domestic issues -- and Romney controlled the flow of the discussion with a more aggressive performance.
That strategy paid off for Romney, who energized conservative supporters with a bold performance. Flash polls of viewers after the debate by CNN and CBS gave the contest to Romney by huge margins, and even Democratic supporters such as MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews railed at the president's lackluster performance.
"Where was Obama tonight?" Matthews thundered. "There's a hot debate going on in this country. Do you know where it's being held? Here on this network is where we're having the debate. We have our knives out. We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in there disarmed."
Mediaite's Tommy Christopher points out in an excellent column that Lehrer also didn't call Romney on two big inconsistencies -- he calls them lies -- that dropped Wednesday: that his plan's 20% tax cut doesn't equal a $5-trillion discount and that his health care proposal would include pre-existing conditions.
Obama also should have been more direct about countering those statements, but a good moderator doesn't just let participants drop whoppers that sound good and walk away.
I was disappointed that when the discussion veered into policy wonk land, amid talk of the Simpson/Bowles committee (a bipartisan group created by Obama to create a roadmap for dealing with the Great Recession) and Dodd/Frank legislation (new post-recession rules for Wall Street) that Lehrer didn't take time to explain those terms to viewers who might not be so familiar with them.
And there was the revolt online against Romney's insistence on cutting funding to PBS and Big Bird (a drop in the bucket; the military spends more on its band programs) and an odd post on KitchenAid's official Twitter page making fun of the fact that Obama's grandmother died right before he was elected president. Really.
But Lehrer had his defenders. CNN analyst David Gergen, a veteran of five different presidential administrations, noted on Twitter "Contra critics, Jim Lehrer did exactly right as moderator: ask basic ?s, let candidates talk. Result: serious conversation."
Below is a quick Storify of all my snark from last night's event: