Just in time for Halloween, Obama and Romney afraid of … Candy?


Just in time for Halloween … Romney and Obama are afraid of … Candy Crowley?

Obama and Romney are apparently objecting to CNN’s Crowley, who is set to moderate Tuesday evening’s presidential debate. They are both complaining to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which regulates presidential debates and has been called upon in the past by watchdog groups to make accessible the contracts struck by candidates prior to debates but has failed to do so this year.

What gives here?

Isn’t it the Fourth Estate’s job to vigorously challenge candidates, and ask aggressive followup questions? Or are journalists merely to be timekeepers for candidates as they recite scripted talking points their handlers have drilled into them so that their answers are more rehearsed than real?

The debate will be in town hall format, meaning the questions will be generated by the audience. That’s good. These men are competing for the Presidency, not to become the next American Idol. Looking good is not enough. Nor is it all about preparation. Though both are former prep school boys who no doubt prepped plenty to get into Harvard, it’s in the public interest to be able to see them thinking on their feet in a tight spot where they won’t get the questions in advance. Neither should they be able to control the moderator or force her ahead of time to agree to let them yak without the threat of–horrors!–a followup question.

The “memorandum of understanding” to which the candidates have agreed may be well intended in one regard: it requires that the focus remain on audience questions. But the broader question is, why is this memorandum, in essence a contract struck by the candidates pre-debate, not public information?

Apparently watchdog organizations have been asking this question. An organization called Open Debates obtained the MOU for the 2004 and 1988 presidential debates (though this year’s remained secret until Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin somehow got his hands on it).

Regarding the debate moderators, the 2004 agreement stated: “If any proposed moderator fails to execute a copy of this agreement at least seven (7) days prior to the proposed date of the debate he or she is to moderate, the two campaigns will agree upon and select a different individual to moderate that debate.”

While it’s being reported that Crowley is not bound to this year’s agreement (in other words, the stipulation that she do her job in a way both candidates approve of is not legally binding), am I alone in finding the language from the 2004 agreement troubling? If this year’s is anything like it, it’s as if the candidates have veto power over any moderator who isn’t agreeing ahead of time to ask the questions way the candidates want them asked (or to coddle them and let them off the hook, perhaps?)

For her part, Crowley is standing her ground and not ceding to the campaigns’ demands that she assure them of whatever it is that they are stipulating via secret handshake. This is important for her, for political journalism in this country, and for the health of the nation. It is vital that the press not be cowed by politicians or administrative bodies who would dictate its role. Because once media is regulated by government, it can’t properly hold government accountable. If journalists aren’t completely free to ask politicians tough questions, the pols are free to put more over on the people. That’s the way it works in most of the world. And that’s why in most places, people are at the mercy of government, not the other way around.

Regarding the concern that the focus stay on audience questions and not those of the moderator, or that she be objective, over-regulating in order to achieve the desired outcome is not usually a good idea both because it infringes on freedom and because it typically creates unintended negative consequences (as a conservative, Mr. Romney in particular ought to know that). Let the public be the judge of whether or not Ms. Crowley balances a probing approach with deference to the audience and candidates, etc. As Fox News’ Greta van Susteren wrote today, “Candy Crowley is a pro with years and years of real experience … but if a candidate fears what Candy might ask at a debate, what happens when the candidate faces world leaders?”

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