Time’s Mark Halperin wins the award for generating controversy on the eve of Tuesday night’s town hall debate, by reporting on an agreement between the Obama and Romney campaigns.
As Halperin notes, according to the deal, “the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic … 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…”
The problem is that — based on her recent comments — moderator Candy Crowley clearly wasn’t part of the agreement, and has a vastly different vision for how things might go down.
This raises a couple of questions: When Crowley was selected to moderate the town hall debate, was she not briefed about this by the Commission on Presidential Debates?
And how was Crowley not aware that since about 1996, town hall debates have increasingly included similar rules?
Here’s Lynn Sweet from 2008:
Almost every important detail about the debates — three presidential and one vice presidential — is governed by a 31-page “memorandum of understanding.” …
… Under the deal, the moderator may not ask followups or make comments. The person who asks the question will not be allowed a follow-up either, and his or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read …
Interestingly, the general consensus among observers seems to be that we should ignore the agreement and “Let Crowley be Crowley.”
There is a sense that candidates are manipulating the rules in order to minimize the potential for gaffes or embarrassing moments.
As political scientist Larry Sabato tweeted,
@mattklewis Debates shouldn’t be about moderators but whole system now rigged to protect candidates from themselves.
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) October 15, 2012
I’m sympathetic to the notion that candidates should be taken out of their comfort zones — and that debates shouldn’t simply be a horse and pony show.
But the time to hash that out is before an agreement is reached — not retroactively.
If Crowley doesn’t like the deal struck between the campaigns, she should bow out now. But what she should not do is unilaterally decide to break the rules the campaigns’s agreed upon rules.