Issues & Insights

Overweening Moderator and ‘Unconscientious Objector’ Prevented Real Debate

A self-important moderator held forth Wednesday night, yet despite her best efforts, an actual debate almost broke out.

“OMG! Your campaigns agreed to rules, and  I’m here to enforce them. But there you go again, trying to finish responding to your opponent’s total falsehood. Who do you think you are: America’s second-ranking leader or something?”

“We have other important issues I want to make sure we have a chance to talk about. In particular, if we don’t plow through all my issues on my timeframe, we might miss my all-important last question from an eighth-grader about politicians being mean to each other!” 

Crack USA Today reporter Susan Page needed to grow up and get over herself. Like umpires at ballgames who forget that fans don’t buy tickets to watch them officiate, she and other recent moderators are missing the point: Americans want to hear from men and women with tremendous power over their everyday lives, especially in the age of coronavirus and mega-government.

Further, note the comment that despite Ms. Page’s annoying insertions of herself into the proceedings, a debate almost broke out. The qualification being that, beyond eliminating incessant moderator interruptions, a real debate requires both participants actually to, well, debate.

Instead, one decided to engage in posturing, evasion, distortion, demagoguery, fantasy and outright prevarication. Just call Sen. Kamala Harris an “un-conscientious objector.”

Posturing: Insisting “I won’t be lectured” and “I’m speaking” – “women’s empowerment” set pieces certain to become the most quoted lines of the night. Smirking “I was part of those peaceful protests.” (Wait: is that up on Twitter yet?) 

Evasion: Two debates in, we still don’t know the Democratic ticket’s position on “court packing.” Which, as Vice President Mike Pence deftly and dryly observed, means we do. 

Distortion: 210,000 Americans wouldn’t have died if Donald Trump had only shared what he knew about coronavirus on Jan. 28. (Two days before the Centers for Disease Control confirmed person-to-person transmission, and weeks before CDC’s early-March insistence that “for most of the American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”)

Demagoguery: Justice was not served in the Breonna Taylor case (a grand jury disagreed on the basis of actual facts laid out by an African-American state attorney general). George Floyd was “tortured and killed” (despite findings of lethal doses of fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system). If you have a pre-existing condition, the Trump administration is “coming for you” (despite repeated commitments to preserve the relevant protections).

Fantasy: Climate change is causing Western wildfires and Gulf of Mexico hurricanes, investing in renewable energy will create millions of jobs, and America will achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

And prevarication: Trump said coronavirus was a hoax and refused to condemn white supremacists (both thoroughly debunked by “fact-checker” sites). The president did nothing about alleged Russian bounties on servicepeople (the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has said he has not seen solid evidence of that). Trump lost the “trade war” with China and with it, 300,000 manufacturing jobs. The Trump tax cuts benefited the top 1% and corporations offshoring their businesses (the latter in particular the exact opposite of reality).

Yet the biggest problem with the entire affair was how both problems raised here intertwined: The moderator’s queries, actually assertions, fed into the non-debater’s quasi-narrative.

“Coronavirus is not under control,” and Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination seems to have been a “superspreader event” – unsupported contentions that set up and reinforced the “Trump’s fault” tirade.

The “latest economic report” (which one?) suggests “a rapid and robust recovery … isn’t happening” – buttressing Sen. Harris’ faulting of the administration for shutdown effects. 

“(T)he scientific community has concluded that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly and have made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging.” Gee? Which side does that invented “conclusion” favor?

“We’ve seen strains with our traditional allies in NATO and elsewhere.” Which candidate exactly wants to continue kowtowing to “allies” who undermine and take advantage of America?

Judge Barrett’s confirmation would “cement the court’s conservative majority and make it likely open to more abortion restrictions.” And what in the record of appointing “conservative” justices in, say, the last seven decades supports that statement?

“President Trump says that he’s going to protect people with preexisting conditions, but he has not explained how he would do that.” Isn’t that exactly one side’s argument?

Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend “didn’t hear” police announce themselves (though a neighbor testified that they did). “(W)as justice done?” An underhand toss down the middle of the plate.

“President Trump has several times refused to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power after the election.” Really? Which “several times” and specifically how? What about Hillary Clinton urging Mr. Biden not to concede or Democratic gaming of election challenges that extended to supporting state secessions and military intervention?

In short, if you felt Wednesday’s “debate” was yet another case of overactive moderator-itis favoring a poser who was otherwise roundly trounced, rest assured you are not alone. 

On second thought, considering the stakes, maybe you shouldn’t rest so assured.

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Bob Maistros

Bob Maistros, a messaging and communications strategist and crisis specialist, is of counsel with Strategic Action Public Affairs, and was chief writer for the Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign, three U.S. Senators, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at bob@rpmexecutive.com.

5 comments

  • An excellent summary of the un-debate. Once again the Republican had to contend with not only his nominal opponent but his immoderator opponent.

    The lies out of Harris’s smirking mouth were particularly galling. Mr Pence was his usual unflappable, articulate self. But I wish he had flapped more and flung the truth out against Harris’s lies one after another. He did counter the Charlottesville myth effectively, but not the others. Democrat Susan Page made it hard to muster a counter-attack against so much baseless accusation.

    /L. E. Joiner (Walking Creek World)

  • Kamala Harris’s sterling biography – woman of color born of immigrant parents; elected to municipal, state and federal offices of note; vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket – is testament to America as a melting pot and a land of opportunity. Too bad she now considers these as microaggressions. Too bad also that her smirking at staid and solid Mike Pence was so ugly.

    Both vice presidential contestants were carrying water for flawed heads of their tickets. Truth is one of the initial casualties when political heavyweights enter the presidential ring, and this year we have two brazen scat-slingers. Voters must decide if a vote for rational policy is more important than a vote for a pleasant personality. The incumbent delights in disrupting the comfortable, the nuanced and the seemingly savvy, indeed he won last time precisely because an Electoral College majority harkened to the call for disruption that so riled our oh-so savvy media and intelligentsia. He is the ringmaster of our Oval Office circus, walking a slack rope without a balance bar while spinning a rotisserie of compulsive boasts. He insists on hurling insults at all who roll their eyes at him, as if he were a Don Rickles doppelgänger carrying a china shop in his mouth. He is an unattractive character. But tax reform and loosening unnecessarily harsh Obama-era regulations boosted our economy to record levels; normalization of alliance defense expenditures strengthened NATO; and bracing China for theft of American intellectual property, cheating on international trade agreements, currency manipulation, cyber sallies and other malign practices was long overdue. He has strengthened our military while seeking to limit its reaches in hostile lands, a policy Democrats of good character would support if the author was someone else.

    In stark contrast, Joe Biden is friendly and personally inoffensive, but his larder is loaded with progressive policies offensive to more than half of the electorate. His teleprompter is a far left ventriloquist.

    That this election is the most important in our lifetimes is the only issue both Democrats and Republicans agree on.

  • My preference would be to have a “moderator” who only announced an area for debate, such as “The Economy,” and then let them actually debate each other within a given time period—which could be extended by mutual agreement of the participants.

    • I’m perfectly happy for a moderator to have a list of topics. But when an important and interesting discussion breaks out, or a candidate deserves a chance to defend himself or herself, the moderator must have the flexibility to relax time limits and his or her planned structure and let that discussion continue.

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