On the Role of Moderators in Presidential Debates

Though Mitt Romney absolutely destroyed President Obama during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, he was lying through his teeth. By winning, he proved that, in 2012, even though we have more information at our fingertips than ever before in human history, if you are applying for the most important job in the world, being factually correct doesn’t matter.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been such blatant lying in a presidential debate. Mitt Romney lied over and over and over again. Here are just two examples:

  1. Romney said “pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan”. They’re not, even according to one of Romney’s top advisers.
  2. Romney said “I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college.” That’s not true.

Wednesday night’s debate was the 12th moderated by Jim Lehrer. It would be gross professional misconduct for him to not have read up on each candidates’ proposals and records. Going into the debate, Lehrer no doubt knew that Romney has a tense relationship with the truth, to put it politely. Perhaps he expected that Romney wouldn’t repeatedly lie while debating the most powerful man in the world. But there’s no doubt in my mind — none at all — that Lehrer knew Romney was lying during the debate.

Consider all of that while reading the next sentence.

What is the role of the moderator in a presidential debate?

In recent debates, moderators asked questions, sometimes had the audacity to ask follow-up questions, and … that’s about it. Debates were little more than press conferences, if that. In 2004, for example, the nominees weren’t even allowed to “ask each other direct questions”. Though the rules of the debate were stupid, it was assumed that the candidates would be at least somewhat truthful. Thus the moderator wouldn’t need to do much more than ask questions.

But now that we’ve entered into an era of “post-truth politics” where there is no serious punishment for lying, the role of the moderator in presidential debates must change. When a candidate is lying, the moderator has to say so. When a candidate is evading a question, the moderator has to say so. Ultimately, the moderator must ensure that the facts are the basis for debate, not the debate itself.

During the debate, Mitt Romney said, “Mr. President, you’re entitled as president to your own airplane, and to your own house, but not to your own facts.”

Which would have been a perfect moment for Jim Lehrer to call out Romney on his bullshit.