Moderator Role Under Scrutiny — Before the Debate
By Mark Halperin | October 14, 2012
11:10 p.m. E.T.
In a rare example of political unity, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have expressed concern to the Commission on Presidential Debates about how the moderator of the Tuesday town hall has publicly described her role, TIME has learned.
While an early October memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns suggests CNN’s Candy Crowley would play a limited role in the Tuesday-night session, Crowley, who is not a party to that agreement, has done a series of interviews on her network in which she has suggested she will assume a broader set of responsibilities. 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?’”
In the view of both campaigns and the commission, those and other recent comments by Crowley conflict with the language the two campaigns agreed to, which delineates a more limited role for the moderator of the town-hall debate. 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 town-hall debate is planned for Tuesday at 9 p.m. E.T. at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
According to the town-hall format language in the agreement, after each audience question and both two-minute responses from the candidates, Obama and Romney are expected to have an additional discussion facilitated by Crowley. Yet her participation is meant to be otherwise limited. As stated in the document: “In managing the two-minute comment periods, 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 or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period.” The memorandum, which has been obtained by TIME, was signed by lawyers for the two campaigns on Oct. 3, the day of the first presidential debate in Denver.
But if the Obama and Romney campaigns agreed to such terms, there is no evidence that Crowley did — or was ever asked to do so.
Instead, the agreement between the campaigns states merely that “The Commission shall provide each moderator with a copy of this agreement and shall use its best efforts to ensure that the moderators implement the terms of this agreement.”
Which helps explain why the two campaigns are suddenly in league. After Crowley made her “x, y, z” remarks to Suzanne Malveaux on October 5, the two campaign counsels, Bob Bauer for President Obama and Ben Ginsberg of the Romney campaign, jointly reached out to the Commission to express concern that the moderator’s comments seemed in direct conflict with the terms of their agreement. The Commission sent back word that they would discuss the matter with Crowley and reconfirm her function. It is not known if such a conversation has taken place, however.
The Commission, both campaigns and CNN declined to comment for the record. Crowley referred all questions about the debate format to the Commission.
The apparent confusion over the town hall moderator’s exact role is the latest in a series of moments that point to the unusual and often fraught relationship between the Commission, the campaigns, and the moderators. Ever since the bipartisan panel took over the staging of the quadrennial debates in 1988, presidential campaigns of both parties have groused that the CPD is frustrating to deal with and appears at times to represent bureaucratic and institutional concerns separate from the public interest. In 2004, President Bush’s re-election campaign even gave serious consideration to sidestepping the Commission’s part in the process.
In an unusual departure from the normal hostility that exists between the Obama and Romney campaigns, both parties wholeheartedly agreed with the Commission that they wished to avoid a repeat of what occurred four years ago. In 2008, NBC News’ Tom Brokaw moderated the town hall session between Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, and the two campaigns and the organizers felt that Brokaw redirected the topics too severely from the audience queries and asked too many of his own questions, limiting the number of citizens who got a chance at the microphone. Appearing on NBC News “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Brokaw said, “t’s tricky for the moderator. I said that Candy Crowley ought to get combat gear after I went through that four years ago.” Brokaw told TIME, “I am satisfied citizens in the hall and online got a fair hearing.” Brokaw also said that while there was some press criticism of the job he did, he heard no complaints directly from the campaigns and a Commission official praised the debate to him as “good television.”
Throughout the long-running talks between the Chicago, Boston and the Commission this election season, there was unambiguous agreement on their shared goal to limit as much as possible the on –camera role the moderator would play in the 2012 town hall debate. In fact, according to one source, the key language from the MOU written up by the campaigns (“the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic”) was taken directly from the words used by a Commission official during an early discussion about the debate formats. In short, as far as the campaigns are concerned, there should be no new follow up questions in the town hall debate.
The moderators’ role is always complex. Journalists and news organizations jockey to get one of the coveted slots and become, in effect, partners with the Commission and the candidates. But they are, of course, also reporters who fiercely guard their independence and bristle at any actual or perceived sense that their function is controlled by the organizers or the campaigns. 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.
Crowley seems unfazed by the behind the scenes maneuvering. Even after concerns were raised in the wake of the Malveaux interview, Crowley made additional comments that make clear she does not feel bound by any agreement between the Commission and the Obama and Romney camps. On October 11, on the day of the vice presidential candidates debate, she told Wolf Blitzer, ”I’m always interested in the questions because you don’t want to — in a debate, you don’t want to go over plowed ground. Now, this is the vice presidential candidates as opposed to the presidential candidates. So, is there room there to come back to a presidential candidate and say, well, your vice presidential candidate said this? I’m always kind of looking for the next question…. So there’s opportunity for follow-up to kind of get them to drill down on the subjects that these folks want to learn about in the town hall.”
Sources say both campaigns are preparing their candidates for the debate under the assumption that Crowley might play a bigger role than either they or the Commission want or envision. At the same time, some officials familiar with the deliberations of the campaigns say they hope that by publicizing the expectations for what the moderator should do in the town hall session, and making public the language in the MOU, Crowley will be less likely to overstep their interpretation of her role. One key source Sunday afternoon expressed confidence that, despite Crowley’s remarks on CNN, the moderator would perform on Tuesday night according to the rules agreed to by the two campaigns.