Debate moderator Jim Lehrer may have achieved by default in Wednesday night’s presidential debate what political aficionados have said they have long wanted—an unfettered debate in which two candidates stood on stage alone.
Lehrer’s retiring performance came in for a wave of criticism following the first of three confrontations between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The PBS NewsHour host didn’t enforce time limits, gave Obama four more minutes to speak than he gave Romney and didn’t clarify some of the arcane terms tossed about by the two combatants.
“Dodd-Frank” and “”Simpson-Bowles” soared as Google search terms late Wednesday as battalions of debate-watchers scurried to their computers looking for clarification that the 78-year-old anchorman did not provide.
The TV newsman only became a presence in his relative absence on the Denver University stage. Indeed, the candidates had barely given their closing statements when one Twitter wag had created a new handle, “SilentJimLehrer,” and animated it with ineffectual interjections, such as “..er...okay so...now” and “and uh, excuse me.”
Lehrer’s unobtrusive approach has been a hallmark of PBS NewsHour for decades. It’s probably one reason that Americans, in a recent Pew survey, rated the nightly show one of the most trusted news sources in the country.
Even if Lehrer’s reticent performance during the debate seemed not up to the moment, it’s unclear it had any effect on the outcome. It merely meant that Obama and Romney were on their own if they wanted to challenge facts, change the direction of the discussion, or just ramble on.
We at Politics Now predicted before the debate that Lehrer “won’t point out contradictions or imply criticism — leaving it to the candidates to do that.”
But the moderator’s gentle attempts to manage the clock were a surprise. When he tried to interrupt the two candidates, it barely registered, as when Obama blew past the two-minute limit in one of his responses about healthcare. “Two minutes is up, sir,” Lehrer politicely interceded.
“No, I think -- I had five seconds before you interrupted me,” Obama insisted. (At that point, Lehrer might have quoted the lIran-Contra defense counsel Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., demanding a place in the proceedings. "“I’m not a potted plant,” Sullivan famously told a congressional hearing. “That’s my job.”)
Instead, Lehrer looked on mutely as the president seized another minute or so of precious air time. He used the time to point out that Romney had passed a plan much like Obamacare when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Lehrer seemed to have no sense that, while both men ignored the time limit, the filibustering helped Obama more. Those who watched the debate on CNN couldn’t miss the discrepancy. The outlet kept a running clock on screen of the total time occupied by Romney and by Obama.
The president at times approached a six-minute time advantage, before ending with four-plus minutes more than the challenger. Lehrer could be heard throughout, a muffled voice in the background, vainly trying to regain control of the proceedings. A gentleman apparently does not simply say, “Enough!”
If Romney was fazed by the president’s time advantage, he didn’t show it. The private equity magnate commandeered extra time himself on more than one topic. In the end, the two men who covet the Oval Office got what one expects they would desire—the chance to stand on their own and fight for their vision of the country.
If anyone could have used more of an assist during the 90 minutes of scuffling, it was the viewers. America’s most venerable debate moderator didn’t provide it for them. Lehrer’s 12th, and, doubtless final, turn in the referee’s chair would not go down as his finest.