A worker walks past a sign in the media filing center before Tuesday's… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)
It’s a good thing the Commission on Presidential Debates has not entirely embraced the agreement between President Obama and Mitt Romney about the rules governing Tuesday night’s “town hall” debate.
Otherwise, the voters who are getting their one direct shot at the candidate and the veteran moderator hired to keep the debate running would be pushed almost entirely to the sidelines. The debate will be better if someone has the power to keep the president and the challenger on point.
A tempest blew through the presidential race Monday when Time magazine’s Mark Halperin reported that the two camps did not like the idea that the moderator — CNN’s Candy Crowley — had described in interviews how she intended to shape the 90-minute debate with her own follow-up questions.
DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?
A memorandum of understanding between Team Obama and Team Romney specifies that “the moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits.”
Luckily, it appears the debate commission has not completely signed on to the agreement between the candidates. Peter Eyre, a senior advisor to the commission, said it had “not given any restrictions to the moderator,” beyond basic time limits.
Here’s the bottom line: Despite lots of huffing and puffing from ideologues about the unfairness of it all, history shows that Crowley has been willing to dish it out to both sides. Since it’s been principally those on the right claiming that Crowley would be “in the tank” for Obama, we went looking for examples. We found quite the contrary.
Critics need only go back as far as the first debate, when she interviewed David Axelrod, one of the president’s chief strategists. Axelrod repeatedly tried to suggest Obama’s performance had been up to his standard. Crowley was not buying.
“Tonight it's a debate that even Democrats have said -- you know, what happened to President Obama? Why didn't he show up?” she said, trying to dislodge Axelrod from his talking points. “He seemed listless, he seemed like didn't want to be there. He -- and Mitt Romney seemed like he showed up to play, and the president bought his ‘C’ game. What -- what's going on here?”
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The host of CNN’s “State of the Union” hasn’t been shy with other Obama administration majordomos, despite the attempts at myth-making to the contrary. She pressed White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew about the president’s invocation of executive privilege, when Obama had harshly criticized President George W. Bush for doing the same. She demanded that another top Obama strategist, David Plouffe, explain 2008 campaign goals that were never achieved.
When Plouffe turned to the issue of deficit reduction, Crowley retorted: “But you’ve had four years to do that.”
The selection and performance of the debate moderators has loomed large in the 2012 race. Critics were sharply divided on Jim Lehrer, who stayed almost entirely in the background while Romney and Obama went at it on Oct. 3. In the vice presidential debate last week, Martha Raddatz of ABC news pursued the candidates with follow-up questions — and took some criticism for it.
Now comes Crowley, a veteran with many presidential campaigns behind her. Her role in CNN’s campaign coverage has been somewhat different than those of this year’s previous moderators, because she provides both news and commentary. On Monday, in fact, CNN host Wolf Blitzer asked her to comment on Obama’s performance in the first debate ("He still has to show passion,” she said, “but he can’t be over the top”) before asking her to comment on her own place in the big showdown.
Crowley signaled she has no intent to take over but merely to guide the candidates “when something comes up that maybe could use a little further explanation.”
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The Gallup organization will select the panel of undecided voters who ¿will have a shot at getting a question to Obama or Romney. But the public participants are allowed only to ask the question they wrote out in advance, as scripted, with no follow-up, according to the debate memorandum. Crowley is even instructed to “cut off the microphone of any audience member who attempts to pose any question or statement different than that previously posed to the moderator for review.”