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Debate Moderator Failed

5 years ago
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Though most polls are showing that Joe Biden "won" his debate with Sarah Palin last night, I couldn't help but feel a bit cheated by the whole thing. Why? Because the candidates were allowed to ramble on and on with their talking points. In effect, there was very little in the night that differed from the stump speeches each candidate delivers on a daily basis. Biden got to ramble on about the middle class, Scranton, how John McCain is like George Bush -- while Palin repeatedly kept gushing her "maverick" mantra.

The responsibility for steering these candidates toward substantive matters, and away from their canned delivery, fell to PBS's Gwen Ifill, and in that regard, she failed miserably. Of course, some of the blame goes to the campaigns themselves, especially McCain's, who lobbied for strict rules that imposed very short time limits on answers and did not allow for follow-up questions. It is my hope that Ifill wasn't cowed by her many critics on the right, who claimed that her authorship of a book about Barack Obama meant she was "in the tank" for Biden. But whether she held back from asking the tough questions because of that controversy, or was simply not in the mood to press these candidates, the end result is we watched a horribly boring 90 minutes of television that did little to inform us how either of these two candidates would govern.

Were there follow-up questions, a moderator worth his or her salt would have made Palin actually answer the questions that were put to her. Again and again, Palin offered curt, often one-word answers if she answered them at all, before veering off into talking-point land. Biden would have been made to hone his answer on those programs that might have to be cut in light of the bailout bill's price tag, instead of being allowed to wax on and on about what an Obama administration will not cut. Palin's retort that nothing would have to be cut from the programs McCain is proposing would have surely brought up a follow-up or two in a more free-flowing environment.

So, what did we really learn about the candidates? We saw Biden get emotional. And Palin didn't have a deer in the headlights moment. We saw that Biden would not pattern his vice presidency after Dick Cheney, but Palin just might, considering she also believes Cheney's office is not part of the Executive Branch. We heard Palin give mixed answers on the role of government. On the one hand we need government to bail out the financial sector, on the other she wants it to get out of people's lives. When it comes to full civil rights for homosexual couples, she again gave mixed answers. Biden was more consistent in his answers, but no more surprising.

In short, we were given a debate in which we once again learned what we already knew. Ms. Ifill, a journalist I respect, turned in a tepid performance. It's not a question of bias, rather, what I regard as the central role of debate questioner, to reveal aspects of a candidate's views that we can't get from watching his or her infomercials. But that's just my take. Hey, the LA Times thought she was great. What's your read?

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