Don't Blame Jim Lehrer

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 4 2012 9:21 AM

Don't Blame Jim Lehrer

DENVER -- Ryan Beckwith makes an interesting, wry point by simply writing down all of the words spoken by Jim Lehrer at last night's debate. How hands-off was Lehrer? Let's see.

Mr. President, please respond directly to what the governor just said about trickle-down — his trickle-down approach, as he said yours is... Both of you have spoken about a lot of different things, and we're going to try to get through them in as specific a way as we possibly can. But, first, Governor Romney, do you have a question that you'd like to ask the president directly about something he just said?

Romney proceeded to speak for more than a minute about "the economy tax" and health care costs, and Lehrer never pressed him on the fact that he'd asked for a question. He tossed out concepts -- twice, he asked the candidates to simply explain "the differences" between them -- but he didn't follow up and ask "hang on, is that true?" But there was a pattern. Lehrer generally asked questions about the long-term fiscal future of entitlements, and the size of government. "Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?" for example, is a question that grows out of Washington's Pete Peterson-enhanced obsession with Social Security reform.

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But it was up to Obama to take those questions and pivot. I like how Noam Scheiber puts it: The Social Security question could have girded an argument about the Republican House (which voters dislike intensely); the 2005 post-election Bush focus on privatization; the current Obama campaign case that attacking "the 47 percent" means attacking people who've paid in for benefits. "Givers, in the best sense of the word," as Jim Webb put it. But Obama stayed within the framework of Social Security reform -- a bizarre decision, when your party has a huge advantage on the issue by defending the status quo.

None of this was Lehrer's fault. Lame questions should turn into opportunities to spin around the conversation. Romney figured that out. Obama never did.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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