Now that the first Obama-Romney debate has had a few days to germinate, it's time to consider the event from a production standpoint -- because in presidential debates, production decisions have political consequences.
STAGING AND VISUALS: The original proposal by the Commission on Presidential Debates called for a format in which the two candidates would sit around a table with the moderator. Reportedly it was the Obama campaign that insisted on lecterns, deeming them more presidential.
Yet in several ways this preference ended up hurting Barack Obama. First, lecterns created a physical barrier between debaters and audience -- the live audience as well as the viewing audience -- just when these candidates need to be reaching out and touching the voters. Second, lecterns visually reinforced Obama's disengagement from the proceedings. His facial expressions already told us he did not want to be there; the lectern added another layer of separation. Third, lecterns discouraged direct interaction between the candidates, particularly in the Obama-to-Romney direction. Romney, by contrast, showed greater willingness to address himself to his opponent, barrier or no barrier.
Other than wanting their man to look presidential -- a strategy that made more sense four years ago than it does now -- it is difficult to fathom why the Obama high command rejected the commission's request for a sit-down debate. Obama made an excellent showing in his table debate with John McCain in 2008. Moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS (also one of this year's moderators), this final match of the season proved to be the best of the '08 series. Obama, McCain, and Schieffer were all in fine form, which demonstrates that it is possible for a TV debate to produce more than one winner.
MODERATORS: In the New York Times and elsewhere I have been defending moderator Jim Lehrer, which I realize places me outside the mainstream of public opinion. Did Lehrer lose control of the debate? Well, sort of. But it was never his intention to exercise a heavy hand. Did his questions lack focus? Yes, if you were expecting an interrogation. But after having moderated eleven previous debates, Lehrer followed his instincts, which told him to plant broad themes and let the candidates riff. As a result, something interesting happened: Lehrer's reticence created a vacuum that Romney leaped to fill, unexpectedly relegating Obama to the sidelines. This diversion from standard campaign choreography is just what presidential debates are supposed to do.
This past April I traveled to France, where I blogged for Le Huffington Post about the presidential debate between Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande (for those who read French, here are my pre-debate and post-debate columns). Presidential debates in France are a remarkably more brutal exercise than their American counterparts. They unfold as relentless verbal jousts, not parallel press conferences. Candidates go after each other hammer and tong, in a way that American pols studiously avoid, lest they alienate voters by appearing rude.
And the moderators contribute virtually nothing. French presidential debates feature a male and a female moderator, whose role it is to tee up topics (a la Lehrer) and ensure that both candidates receive precisely the same amount of time. This timing function gets tricky, because inevitably one debater runs past his allotted minutes, which means a bit more time for the other candidate, who then runs long himself, ad nauseam. Sarkozy and Hollande were supposed to debate for two and a half hours; thanks to the "running clock," they went at it for almost three -- nearly twice as long as Obama and Romney.
France is not the only country in which moderators deliberately step back from the action. Spain's presidential debates allow almost no moderator involvement, other than introducing and concluding the program and designating discussion themes along the way. Through my research into campaign debates around the world, I have become friends with Manuel Campo Vidal, the Spanish journalist who has served as moderator for three out of the five presidential debates in that country's history. Campo Vidal not only moderates Spain's debates, he also serves as executive producer, in his capacity as head of the Academia de las Ciencias y las Artes de Televisión, which has sponsored the last two rounds of Spanish presidential debates.
I asked Manuel Campo Vidal to comment on the Lehrer controversy from the perspective of someone who has walked in the moderator's shoes. His reply from Madrid (my translation first, then Campo Vidal's original): "I think Jim might have fallen victim to going into a debate without clear rules, also a format new to an audience accustomed to other types of debates. That carries risks." ("Creo que Jim pudo ser víctima de ir a un debate sin reglas demasiado claras y además novedoso con el público acostumbrado a otro tipo de debate. Eso tiene riesgo.")
Campo Vidal added that any journalist who agrees to moderate a debate places himself at peril, especially when navigating an untested format. To Campo Vidal it appeared that Lehrer might have been thrown off-stride by Romney's comment about cutting federal funding of PBS, and that Lehrer was right not to get drawn into the discussion. "The moderator isn't a protagonist, he shouldn't debate. After this debate my admiration for Jim and his career remains intact." ("El moderador no es protagonista, no debe debatir. Después de este debate mi admiración por Jim y su trayectoria profesional permanece intacta.")
It bears mention that Martha Raddatz of ABC News will moderate the vice presidential debate in a format similar to the one used by Obama and McCain in Denver, so we will soon have a chance to observe a different moderator's approach to essentially the same structural challenge.
GOING FORWARD. The next Obama-Romney debate on October 16 will be a town hall, a format that presents its own peculiarities. Romney's aggressive, high-energy tone may not play so favorably before an audience of citizens seeking answers to their questions. Romney has a strange flair for insulting the average Joes and Janes he meets on the campaign trail; this does not bode well for him in a meet-the-voters setting.
Town halls allow candidates to interject a bit of levity into their delivery, to have some fun with the audience. It will be especially important for Obama to put on a happy face after his sullen demeanor in Denver. For Romney humor is a less reliable ally, probably best avoided in the volatile setting of a live debate. Romney gets off a decent line every now and again, but too many of his references are either corny or passé.
Town halls also let candidates showcase strategic empathy, Bill Clinton being the master of such camera-friendly moments. Obama, in his 2008 town hall with John McCain, did little to avail himself of that opportunity. This time around, as an antidote to his weak performance in Denver, the president has little choice but to work the crowd.
Finally, the town hall requires more of the debaters physically. The lecterns that did Obama no favors in the first debate will be gone. As the more physically fluent candidate, the president holds a visual advantage over Romney, just as he did over McCain four years ago. The town hall format puts Obama in a strong position to make gains against Mitt Romney, should he care enough to try.
This column is cross-posted on the Presidential Debate Blog.