The first two debate moderators, Jim Lehrer and Martha Raddatz, have played to mixed reactions. Democrats generally saw Lehrer as too laid back while Mitt Romney steamrolled Barack Obama, while Republicans generally saw Raddatz as unfairly interrupting Paul Ryan during the vice presidential debate. CNN’s Candy Crowley moderates the third debate, which is supposed to have a townhall format.
The two campaigns and the debate commission forged an agreement that the moderator for this debate would have a limited role.
The questioning of the two candidates is supposed to be driven by the audience members themselves — likely voters selected by the Gallup Organization. Crowley’s assignment differs from those of the three other debate moderators, who in the more standard format are supposed to lead the questioning and follow up when appropriate.
The moderator isn’t supposed to ask follow-up questions or comment on the answers given by the candidates.
But there are two catches. Crowley never signed onto the agreement herself. That’s the first catch. The second is that she does have a great deal of power behind the scenes.
As to the first, Crowley says that she intends to go beyond the role spelled out for her in the agreement.
As Crowley put it last week, “Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?’”
As to the second, it’s more or less the power to shape the entire debate without appearing to do so.
All parties acknowledge that Crowley’s behind-the-scenes role will be quite influential. She will cull the questions submitted by the voters invited to attend the debate, and then decide which ones will be asked and in what order.
That’s quite a bit of power. The question is, how will Crowley use that power?
Candy Crowley generally doesn’t come across as overtly biased in the way that some other reporters do, but she did recently tip her hand regarding the current presidential race. When Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, Crowley described the pick as “some sort of death wish ticket.” Crowley claimed to be voicing the concerns of unnamed Republicans about Ryan’s selection, but that’s a common and shady tic reporters adopt when they’re really stating their own opinion. There were some Republican concerns about the Ryan pick, as there always are when any GOP presidential candidate makes any major decision, but there were probably more Republicans excited by Ryan’s selection because it showed that Romney is serious about substance and the fiscal crisis that America faces. Crowley never mentioned that as far as I know.
But are concerns about her as the moderator premature, as Noah Rothman writes at Mediaite? I don’t think so. When are we supposed to raise questions, after the debate is done and dusted?
I expect that Crowley will shape the debate to suit a typical mainstream media slant on the issues, meaning that most of the questioning will come from the left. The mainstream media are about 90% leftist-liberal in their politics. To expect one of them to play both sides evenly, given as much influence over a pivotal moment as Crowley will have, is to expect the extremely unlikely. Hopefully she’ll prove me wrong, but I don’t expect her to.