Was Jim Lehrer Really That Bad as Debate Moderator?

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 4 2012 1:42 AM

Jim Lehrer vs. @SilentJimLehrer: Was Last Night's Moderator Really That Bad?

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A poduim sits empty as moderator Jim Lehrer sits at his desk before Wednesday's presidential debate in Denver

Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images.

This is not a defense of Jim Lehrer. OK, maybe it is a tiny defense of the PBS veteran, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Wednesday's debate marked the 12th time that Lehrer moderated a presidential or vice presidential debate. But that quarter-century worth of experience behind a debate desk was hardly on display during President Obama and Mitt Romney's back-and-forths (and often just forths) last night.

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The 78-year-old struggled to control the action nearly from the outset, repeatedly allowing both candidates to talk over him as he tried and failed to stick to a planned format that was more or less abandoned by the time both men had finished talking about the Obamas' anniversary. As Lehrer made clear up front, he was the final arbiter last night, and so it's fair to blame him for what proved to be a frustratingly disjointed affair.

The Internet responded with a collective head slap as exchanges like this one played out on televisions across the country: [transcript via the Washington Post]

ROMNEY: Jim, let me just come back on that -- on that point, which is these...
LEHRER: Just for the -- just for record...
(CROSSTALK)
ROMNEY: ... the small businesses we’re talking about...
LEHRER: Excuse me. Excuse me. Just so everybody understands, we’re way over our first 15 minutes.
ROMNEY: It’s fun, isn’t it?
LEHRER: It’s OK, it’s great. No problem. Well, you all don’t have -- you don’t have a problem, I don’t have a problem, because we’re still on the economy. We’re going to come back to taxes. I want move on to the deficit and a lot of other things, too.
OK, but go ahead, sir.

Before the debate was over, Twitter was littered with retweets of mocking, elipsis-filled comments from a gimmick handle named @SilentJimLehrer. A typical tweet went something like this: "...er...okay so...now..." As things wrapped up on stage in Denver, even the real Jim Lehrer appeared to realize he'd delivered a less-than-stellar performance. "I’m not going to grade the two of you and say your answers have been too long or I’ve done a poor job," he said, not saying what the rest of us were thinking at that moment.

But did Lehrer really do that bad of a job?

OK, it clearly wasn't one for his highlight reel, but we feel compelled nonetheless to offer something of a defense of Lehrer if for no other than reason than we're not sure how anyone without a mute button or buzzer of some kind would have been able to keep the two men within their recommended response times last night.

You can fault the debate's structure for eschewing stricter time limits in the overly optimistic hopes of more detailed debate, and likewise Lehrer for his decision to not thrust himself into the middle of the conversation in an attempt to pull answers out of the mouths of candidates who were largely happy to stick to their talking points. But a closer look at the transcripts reveals that Lehrer wasn't necessarily as quiet as he may have seemed in the moment.

By our very unofficial count, the moderator asked plenty of questions—even if they weren't answered—on topics ranging from the role of the federal government to the the deficit-cutting proposal known as Simpson-Bowles.

A sampling of his broad-brush questions:

  • On job creation: "What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?"
  • On the deficit: "What are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?"
  • On financial regulation: "What is your view about the level of federal regulation of the economy right now? Is there too much? And in your case, Mr. President, is there—should there be more?"
  • On Social Security: "Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?"
  • On the role of government: "Do you believe there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?"

(Clearly, he was making no secret that his primary focus was on the latter half of compare and contrast.)

And while many critics were quick to blast Lehrer for failing to push candidates hard enough for better answers, the transcripts again show multiple attempts by Lehrer to keep the back-and-forth going that were quickly forgotten in the storm of criticism that followed. "Mr. President, please respond directly to what the governor just said about trickle-down—his trick-down approach, as he said yours is," Lehrer said in an inelegantly phrased question to Obama following Romney's suggestion that the president has championed a "trickle-down government."

Lehrer kept at it until the very end, interrupting Romney during his final monologue (on reaching across the aisle) before the closing remarks to ask the former governor "But what would you do as president?" Of course, that interjection managed to draw only a platitude about how both parties "love America." But is that really Lehrer's fault?

Ultimately, as Ted Koppel explained to Politico ahead of the event, at some point the pressing needs to come from the men on stage. "It's up to the candidates to say to one another, 'I heard Jim's question and you're not answering it,'" the longtime journalist said. "This is not about whether we want Jim Lehrer to be president."

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the entire @Slatest team on Twitter.***

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