If the big moderating question before the presidential/vice-presidential debates began was, how should a moderator be, each set of moderators’ performances so far has answered that in very different ways.
Last night’s presidential debate moderating pair, ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, was the most assertive yet, something critics largely felt was necessary given the specifics of last night’s debate.
New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum writes, not disapprovingly, that the hosts “put themselves directly in the mix of a high-stakes encounter.”
They dug for revelations, extracting news nuggets — a rarity on a debate night — like Donald J. Trump’s admission that he had used a nearly billion-dollar loss to avoid paying federal income taxes for years.
They pressed for specifics, interrupting the candidates to demand concrete strategies for handling conflict in Syria and reforming the nation’s health care system.
Where this became something of a problem was in the format, which felt less like a town hall because of it:
One group that appeared shortchanged was the undecided voters sitting onstage, who, between the moderators’ tough questions and the candidates’ heated exchanges, received relatively little airtime. The moderators appeared willing to buck the debate’s format when they deemed a particular interaction newsworthy or illuminating.
Politico’s Hadas Gold characterized Raddatz as bringing “fire” and Cooper “the whip,” called the debate the “perfect test of their skills,” specifically their “no-nonsense approach to interviewing public officials.” Gold also depicted their aggressive style as necessary given the particulars of this debate:
Cooper and Raddatz were prepared, frequently tightening the reins to keep the debate on point. Their aggressiveness relative to past moderators — exemplified by Raddatz’s decision to parry with Donald Trump when he questioned why coalition forces in Iraq were advertising their planned assault on Mosul — was enough to anger some partisans, particularly in the Trump camp.
But the moderators were also aggressive about cutting off Clinton when she lapsed into long stump-speech answers. And given the volatility of the moment, exacerbated by Trump’s fiery outbursts in the early minutes, the moderators’ attempt to stick to the rules were the only thing that kept the discussion from spiraling out of control.
Slate’s Isaac Chotiner pointed out how Raddatz and Cooper’s performance negated a claim from their fiercest critic—Donald Trump, from his perch on stage:
Despite Trump’s incessant beefing about unfair treatment, Raddatz and Cooper managed to ensure that the candidates got equal time. (CNN, pre-empting any complaints, immediately put up a graphic after the debate showing that Trump had actually spoken slightly more than Clinton.)
While many critics notes that Raddatz shined most with follow-ups on foreign policy, her area of deep expertise, Chotiner found one of those follow-ups to be unwarranted:
The most jarring or inspirational part of the evening, depending on your point of view, occurred during one of Trump’s many nonsensical answers, this one on Iraq. After lodging his usual complaint that the American government was giving too much warning to ISIS before attacking it, Raddatz piped up to say that there were reasons the government might do so. This “correction” was cheered by people on social media because it represented a response to the misrepresentations that Trump constantly spouts. But it wasn’t really her place to say this. Trump was not making a factual statement, just offering a deranged opinion. And considering that Trump uttered a number of other flat-out lies that went uncorrected or uncommented upon by the moderators—the two most blatant of which were surely his claimed opposition to the Iraq war and his smear that unnamed Muslims were aware of bombs lying around the San Bernardino shooters’ apartment—it seemed especially odd that she chose this moment to take a stand. (The Iraq and San Bernardino lies are so common that Raddatz and Cooper must have been prepared for them.)
The Hill’s Joe Concha‘s review of the moderators was mixed:
Of the three debates held thus far on the presidential and vice presidential level, the moderating on Sunday night from St. Louis was easily the best of the three.
But the performance by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’s Martha Raddatz wasn’t exactly what one would call exemplary, particularly by the latter.
First, it should be said that the good outweighed the bad: both Cooper and Raddatz finally did what NBC’s Lester Holt and CBS’s Elaine Quijano wouldn’t do in the first presidential and only vice presidential debates: Actually broach some, but not all, of the top three biggest vulnerabilities of the Democrat in the room.
Like Chotiner, Concha found Raddatz’s exchange with Trump on ISIS warnings fell outside of her mandate as moderator, writing,
Raddatz did exactly what Trump accused of earlier: Became a debate opponent. Clinton — who served as a secretary of State — could have broached Raddatz’s point instead if she so chose. Or the ABC News moderator could have simply pivoted to Clinton on the next question and asked if she agreed with Trump’s perspective.
There were some Raddatz-specific fans out there as well, including The Post’s Chris Cillizza:
Trump, from the very start, seemed intent on driving home the idea that Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper were ganging up on him to help Clinton. And Raddatz’s back-and-forth with Trump over Syria will assuredly convince plenty of conservatives that he was right. But I thought Raddatz was forceful and fair. She refused to allow Trump or Clinton to filibuster, and she fact-checked when the moment required it. The only question I had about Raddatz while watching the debate was why the heck she didn’t get her own solo moderating gig in these debates.
How do you think the moderators did? Let us know in the comments below.