I was as happy as any supporter of him could have been to see the President rebound in the second Presidential Debate. Polls are already unanimously declaring Obama the winner, and even a user poll on Fox News had him winning 70% to 30% last time I checked. But a number of my conservative friends immediately began crying “Foul!” over Candy Crowley’s moderating of the town-hall meeting.
I hate to say it, but they have a point. Crowley broke a bunch of the agreed-upon debate rules (available here) that are meant to bind candidates, moderators, audience members, campaigns, and the commission itself. And it would be disingenuous to pretend that her interventions didn’t have an effect on the debate. The full transcript is here.
Here are some of Crowley’s probable or definite violations:
1. The rules state that the moderator, in managing the two-minute response periods, will “not rephrase the question or open a new topic.” Some of what she said to both candidates could easily be seen as doing just that, but one of the most egregious examples was probably when she asked Romney, as a follow-up to the question on general immigration policy, about “self-deportation.” This was a reference to a point made by Obama in an earlier response, and it was a loaded concentration of the topic.
2. The rules state that questions must alternate between candidates, and this is important not just to ensure an equal number of questions but, just as importantly, an equal number of chances to get the final response to a question. Toward the end of the debate, Crowley gave Obama two questions in a row–arguably an advantage to Romney, because it allowed him to get the last word in on those questions–and then the final two questions to Romney. This didn’t necessarily give Obama an unwarranted advantage, because, had the questions proceeded in their ordained order Romney still would have gotten the last question and Obama the last response. But we did go out of order.
3. At one point, Crowley told Romney, as he tried to get a response in, that, “in the follow-up, it doesn’t work like that.” I don’t know where she got this from. Here’s the exchange, following the question on gas prices:
MS. CROWLEY: Mr. President, I got to — I got to move you along. And the next a question is for you —
MR. ROMNEY: No, he — he gets the first — he actually got — he actually got the first question. So I get the last question — last answer on that one.
MS. CROWLEY: If — actually, in the follow-up. It doesn’t quite work like that.
The rules explicitly state equal, alternating, two-minute response periods for each candidate, and Romney was rightly protesting that he had been denied a response. There was partial compensation for this later, when Obama was denied a full final response he was owed on the question of taxes. But on the very next question, on workplace inequality, Obama fielded the question, Romney responded, and Obama got in a follow-up. Romney was not prompted for a follow-up he was owed, but, to be fair, this was the one point in the debate where he didn’t seem to protest.
4. Most devastatingly, Crowley fact-checked Romney on his claim that Obama had not called the attack against the US embassy in Libya an “act of terror.” Here’s the exchange:
MR. ROMNEY: Yeah, I — I certainly do. I certainly do. I — I think it’s interesting the president just said something which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror. You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed.
MR. ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.
MR. ROMNEY: I — I — I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Get the transcript.
MS. CROWLEY: It — he did in fact, sir.
So let me — let me call it an act of terrorism — (inaudible) —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy? (Laughter, applause.)
MS. CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror.
Ignore for a moment Romney’s bizarrely confrontational, interrogation-like behavior. The rules explicitly state that the moderator is to neither “comment on . . . the answers of the candidates” nor “otherwise intervene.” While I appreciate the truth–she was right, while Romney was wrong, because Obama did refer to “terror” in reference to the attack one day after it–and while I think it serves the American people to have accurate facts proffered during and after debates, it broke the rules, and it was being touted by many as the pivotal point in the evening. Romney was fact-checked, the audience applauded, and it didn’t look make him look particularly good.
So, I have sympathy for my conservative friends who feel Romney was slighted by the moderator. But Crowley was not the only person who broke the agreed debate rules on the night. There was one other, and it was Mitt Romney.
The rules explicitly state that the candidates are prohibited from addressing questions directly to each other. Romney did this many times, occasionally making it seem as if he had the prosecutorial license to grill Obama in a courtroom. In the exchange over Libya that I just quoted, we see this. This is a serious breach of the rules, and, perhaps fairly, it backfired disastrously, both in the Libya exchange above and in another one on pensions:
MR. ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (Inaudible) — Candy —
MR. ROMNEY: Have you looked at your pension?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’ve got to say — (inaudible) —
MR. ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours, so it — it doesn’t take as long. The —
It’s likely that Obama’s initial appeals to Crowley were abortive protests against Romney’s violation of the rules. (For the record, Obama never once addressed a question to Romney.) After twice appealing to Crowley, as if to point out the impropriety of a direct question from the other candidate and to remind her to do her job (which explicitly includes reminding the candidates of the rules when they break them), Obama finally offers a whoppingly acute one-liner that highlights Romney’s wealth and possibly alludes to allegations of the illegality of his larger-than-legally-explicable pension.