Candy Crowley’s No-No

Moderating last night’s slugfest of a “town meeting” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was no enviable assignment.  Did CNN’s Candy Crowley overstep her proper role when she intervened during the candidates’ disagreement about Libya?  I think she did.

The exchange came as the candidates were arguing about the Obama Administration’s statements that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was precipitated by a YouTube video, and specifically whether the President had labeled the attack an “act of terror” in remarks he made shortly after the attack.  When Romney tried to pin the President down on that point, the President responded that Romney should get the transcript.  Romney replied that it took the President 14 days to call the attack a terrorist act.  Crowley then interjected that the President “did in fact” call it an act of terror, the President said “”Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” and the Obama supporters in the audience applauded — and thereby broke the rule that the audience should not respond to any statements.  A transcript of the full debate can be viewed here.

Were Crowley and the President right in their interpretation of the Rose Garden statement?  The official White House transcript of the remarks is available here, and I think the interpretation of those remarks is highly debatable.  The President did mention “acts of terror” — in paragraph 10 of the 13-paragraph statement — by saying:  “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”   But is that lone reference, which refers to multiple “acts of terror” and restates a time-honored presidential theme so oft-repeated that has almost become a platitude, really labeling the Benghazi attack a terrorist act?  Moreover, the President earlier states, in the fourth paragraph:  “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”  The statement about “denigrat[ing] the religious views of others” seems to be a reference to the YouTube video, and typically you would not call a planned terrorist act “senseless violence.”

My point is not to argue who was right or wrong in their characterization of the statement, but rather to note only that it is a debatable issue and to observe that Crowley stepped outside of her proper role in her interjection.  By purporting to state what the President “in fact” did, Crowley presumed to act as a judge.  She tossed the President a lifeline of sorts — which the President eagerly grabbed by asking Crowley to repeat herself — and she caused partisans in the audience to violate the “no applause” edict.  I think Crowley herself realized that she had blundered, because she immediately tried to even the ledger by saying that Romney was right in some of his criticism.  The proper course, however, would have been to say nothing, and let the people decide for themselves.

Crowley’s interjection was unfortunate for a larger reason: it feeds into an increasingly prevalent view that the news media is biased and can’t be trusted.  People who have that view and watched last night’s debate will conclude that if a member of the media can’t refrain from stating their personal interpretation even while moderating a presidential debate, the media can’t be trusted, period.  That’s bad for our country, because we need the press, warts and all, to ferret out the news and report it — and for that process to work we need for people to believe that the press is doing so fairly and objectively.

Quick Thoughts On The Second Debate

The second debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney is now in the books.  Was there a winner and loser?

I think the loser is the town meeting format.  It’s just not well suited to a meaningful debate.  The candidates both ran roughshod over the rules, often failed to answer the questions, and frequently argued with each other and interrupted each other.  The result was a very messy discussion.  It was not particularly attractive to watch, and in my view didn’t reflect well on either candidate.  I’d be interested in knowing whether the folks in the room felt as uncomfortable watching the interruptions and posturing as Kish and I did watching from our family room.

The questions at least got us into some new issues that haven’t been addressed yet — domestic gas prices, trade, immigration, gun control, and Libya, with the Libya discussion probably being the one that is the most likely to be carefully deconstructed and analyzed.  These are issues that need to be discussed, and it is worthwhile that they have been introduced to this campaign.

Both candidates obviously decided to be more assertive.  The President certainly was more aggressive than he was in the first debate, and in that sense I think he did what he needed to do in the debate.  Mitt Romney responded in kind.  Because the President gave a much stronger performance than in the first debate, he at least won’t be criticized by his own supporters — which will be a victory of sorts for him.  We’ll see what the fallout is as people digest the discussion and the argument, and the unattractive, off-putting nature of this debate.

The Second Time Around

Tonight President Obama and Mitt Romney square off in their second debate.  Debates always are a political high-wire act — and tonight that is particularly true for President Obama, who will be looking to recover from a first debate that has given Mitt Romney a surge in the polls and a sense of significant momentum.

This debate will have a “town meeting” format.  Undecided voters chosen by Gallup will ask questions of the candidates.  The topics may include foreign and domestic issues.  Each candidate gets two minutes to answer, and then moderator Candy Crowley of CNN has another minute to “facilitate a discussion.”   If everyone stick to the time limits (ha!), answers will consume about five minutes, which means more than 15 topics could be addressed during the 90-minute debate.  That presents a much more daunting candidate preparation challenge than did the first debate, where the topics that would be the subject of questions were disclosed well before the debate began.

I’m not a big fan of the town meeting format.  Too often, the citizen participants ask narrow questions about topics that might be important to them but aren’t really relevant to the general public.  Due to the short time limits the debates flit from topic to topic, each candidate reeling off their two-minute talking points about the issue without any real give and take between the candidates.  How is the moderator supposed to “facilitate a discussion” in one minute?  When was the last time you had a one-minute “discussion” about anything?

Still, the format does have its intrigue.  Any time you have average folks in a room with presidential candidates there’s the chance that something unexpected might happen and a screwball question might lead to a memorable moment.  Add in questions about whether Crowley will depart from the agreed-upon moderator’s role and conspiratorial theories about whether any of the “undecided voters” are really partisan plants who will ask a question scripted by one of the campaigns and you have an event that is worth checking out.

My only prediction is that this debate will have an even larger TV audience than the first one.  I think the continuing talk about the President’s performance during the first debate will cause people who skipped that contest to tune in just to see how the President does and whether Mitt Romney can turn in another strong performance.  I think we’ve finally reached the point where all likely voters are fully engaged in the process.  That means most people — outside of New York Yankee and Detroit Tiger fans — will probably watch to see how their candidate does.