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Lawrence Lessig Headshot

What the Hell Is Being a Moderator For?

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For the first time in as long as we can tell, neither candidate for president is addressing one of the top 10 issues that Americans believe should be a priority for the next president. Indeed, not just one issue, but two.

Since 2000, Gallup has been asking Americans to identify "how important a priority each of the following issues should be for the next President of the United States." Every year before this one, those issues at the top are exactly the issues the candidates addressed on their websites. (Click here to see the research.) The order maybe different. There may be other issues addressed that are not on that top 10 list. But in every election since 2000, every one of the top 10 gets at least some serious consideration.

Until this year. Of the top 10 issues that Gallup identified, two are not even mentioned on either candidate's website: number two on the list (with 87% of Americans believing it "extremely or very important") -- "reducing corruption in the federal government," and number nine (with 76%) -- "overcoming political gridlock."

Ranked more highly than terrorism, the deficit, schools or social security, Americans want "corruption" to end. More than tax reform, or affordable access to college, Americans want "gridlock" to end. Yet neither campaign thinks it necessary to even mention these top priorities.

Why?

Let's focus on issue number two: "reducing corruption in the federal government." It's clear that by "corruption," Americans don't mean the crimes of Rod Blagojevich or Jack Abramoff. Those scandals were long ago, and our memory is short. Instead, the only sort of "corruption" that has had the focus of the news media is the endless campaign cash that every candidate for any office is now seen obsessively to seek. Super PACs and Citizens United: these are the triggers to what we mean today by "corruption." In response to that corruption, Americans are looking for a democracy that doesn't seem so slimy.

Yet neither Romney nor Obama wants to talk about this corruption, though no doubt for very different reasons. Though Americans hate the system, beltway Republicans (and Romney) apparently love it. Some think it's the only way for Republicans to remain competitive. So it's obviously best for them to keep silent about an issue not likely to win them support. And while Obama no doubt hates the system as much as anyone, to raise it now would be to remind us that he promised to "take up that fight" to change the system, but has not yet gotten around to it. Worse, there's something seemingly hypocritical about attacking SuperPACs while encouraging friends to send support to your own.

So it's no surprise that the candidates won't volunteer a plan to address this "corruption." But why is it that they are not asked anyway? Why isn't it the core of journalistic ethics to get the candidates to address the issues America wants addressed, especially when it is clear that candidates themselves don't want that issue addressed?

This is a question not easily answered, because it's not clear anymore just what a political journalist is. Candidates appear on news programs on their terms, not terms set by the show. They agree to debate only if their lawyers are permitted to set the rules and scope -- which was precisely why the League of Women Voters could no longer agree to host debates. In the endless competition for access, politicians set the terms for access. And even if they don't explicitly put issues off the table, everyone understands the consequences of making a candidate uncomfortable. There's always a next time, unless, of course, you make things really bad for the candidate this time.

But there is one political journalist who is free of these constraints: the moderator of a presidential debate. Candidates have no choice but to show up to the debates. They have no way to hide from a question directly put. So if there's one person the system should count on to ask the questions America wants answered but the candidates want avoided, it is the moderator of a presidential debate.

Yet no moderator to date has accepted this responsibility. Candy Crowley moderated the questions of randomly selected undecided voters -- as if that would capture anything about the issues most of America wants answered. And Jim Lehrer let the rules get smothered by his need to be kind to important people -- with the consequence that he never even got to the part of the debate where "corruption" might have been an issue.

In Robert Caro's latest Johnson biography, he recounts a famous story about Johnson's decision to take up the cause of civil rights. Kennedy had just been murdered. The nation was looking for a new leader. But Johnson was being counseled as strongly as his advisers could counsel not to bring up a civil rights bill. As Caro retells it:

[I]n the early hours of the morning... "one of the wise, practical people around the table" told [Johnson] to his face that a president shouldn't spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be.

"Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" Lyndon Johnson replied.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It may be too much to wish for a president with Johnson's strength of character. But is it too much to wish for moderator who is Johnson-like? Too much to wish for a moderator who wonders, what is being a moderator for?

It's not the job of the moderator to be liked. It's not the job to seem agreeable. The job is to make sure that America understands what the candidates believe about the issues that America cares about. Moderator laissez faire won't get us there. A real political journalist just might.

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