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Debate Moderator's Goal: Get Out of the Way Fast

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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With the final debate of the 2016 presidential cycle set for tonight, all eyes are on, yes, the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News.  

The debate returns to the format of the first one, dividing the 90 minutes into six pre-announced topics. In the Sept. 26 event, moderated by Lester Holt, these were vague categories such as “America’s Direction.” This time, the subjects are more specific: “immigration, entitlements and debt, the Supreme Court, the economy, foreign policy, and each candidate’s fitness to serve as president.” 

Wallace is known for asking “tough” questions. That’s appropriate in one-on-one interview settings. But debates are different.

Sometimes Wallace’s grilling style pushes the candidates in ways that might be useful to voters. Here’s an example from a Republican primary debate in March: 

WALLACE: Mr. Trump, your proposed tax cut would add $10 trillion to the nation’s debt over 10 years, even if the economy grows the way that you say it will. You insist that you could make up for a good deal of that, you say, by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse.

TRUMP: Correct.

WALLACE: Like what? And please be specific.

Of course, politicians know how to duck anything they don’t want to talk about. But it’s worth putting a reasonable topic out on the table and let them have at it. 

Sometimes it’s hard to see what Wallace’s point is. Take this question he posed to Marco Rubio:

WALLACE: Senator Rubio, you have taken to calling Mr. Trump a con artist who portrays himself as a hero to working people while he’s really been, in your words, “sticking it” to the American workers for 40 years. But he has built a big company that employs thousands of people. Question. How many jobs have you created?

That’s a hard question to answer, so it tests debate skills. But the candidates not running for Debater in Chief.

And here’s one where Wallace was just picking a fight:

WALLACE: Senator Rubio, you like to take a shot at Mr. Trump on the campaign trail saying that negotiating a hotel deal in a foreign country is not foreign policy. The other day you even compared him to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as lunatics trying to get a hold of nuclear weapons.

Please tell Mr. Trump why he’s unprepared to be commander-in-chief.

If the candidate want to insult each other, that’s fine; it’s not the moderators’ job to encourage it.

What about follow-up questions and real-time fact-checking?

Again, in one-on-one interviews, challenging the politician if he or she flubs factual material, for example, is essential. But only in presidential debates can the candidates engage each other in conversation. So moderators should dial back their penchant for challenging the people on stage in favor of keeping the conversation going.

Wallace was aggressive with fact-checking in the March debate; Fox had prepared charts to show what the candidates were trying to evade or what facts they were getting wrong. He later said he doesn’t believe this is the role of the moderator. 

This doesn’t mean the moderator shouldn’t revive a topic after a candidate evades it. And if the candidates are arguing over something that has a clear factual answer, then it’s appropriate to call out the one who is way off base.

Trump, who gets the facts wrong far more often than any other major-party nominee who has ever participated in these debates, may, for example, insist again that he publicly opposed the Iraq war before it began, despite documentation that he did not. It's hard for anyone to ignore that.  

What these events shouldn’t be expected to do, Trump or no Trump, is resemble proper debates. Democracy isn’t a test of debate skills.  

The face-off tonight can signal to inattentive voters that the election is near, remind partisan voters of the talking points each campaign has developed, and allow the candidate to demonstrate the public persona he and she has developed -- an important way they make promises to their supporters.  

If Chris Wallace can just introduce important topics, try to keep the candidates from talking over each other and make sure the time is fairly allotted, then he will have done his job.

  1. Televised presidential general-election debates first took place in 1960. After a 16-year gap, they resumed in 1976 and have been held every four years since. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net