Martha Raddatz, ABC's Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent, was one of two women chosen to moderate the 2012 debate series. Prior to the debate, the media raised questions about her aptitude for this role, given her lack of experience moderating debates of this magnitude. Would she be tougher than Jim Lehrer? Would she ask broad or more newsy questions?
Like the two vice presidential candidates, the moderator's performance picked up steam as the debate progressed. But the question still remains: did she successfully moderate the debate? Well, if you are simply comparing Raddatz to last week's moderator, Jim Lehrer, then, "mission accomplished." However, if you were to look at her performance in a vacuum, Raddatz was at times as aggressive as she was docile.
For example, the second segment in the debate was on the foreign policy issue of Iran's nuclear program. Both Romney and Obama have been quoted as saying that they would use military action, if needed, to prevent Iran from getting fully functional nuclear warheads. The specific question for vice presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Joe Biden was whether such a military strike would be effective.
Neither candidate directly answered the call of the question. Ryan talked about how watered-down the sanctions on Iran were. Conversely, Biden made sure to repeatedly state that these sanctions were "the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions."
Ryan then went on to attack Obama for failing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pointing out that Obama opted to go on a talk show instead. Biden rebutted, while affectionately referring to his decades-old friend as "Bibi." Such immaterial statements have been emblematic of the problems with the political discourse in this election.
Allowing herself to be cut off, Raddatz did not force either candidate to expand on their general statements, nor did she demand that they directly answer the question about the effectiveness of a military strike on Iran. Ryan got away with simply saying that Obama's "all options are on the table" approach reinforced a sentiment of American weakness in the eyes of our enemies. Raddatz also let Biden slip by with his recurring remark that Iran doesn't even have a weapon in which to put enriched uranium.
The candidates' lack luster responses to this specific issue were representative of the larger problem with less-than-perfect moderation: the American people are left misinformed on the specific facts, as well as a candidate's precise stance on a given issue. Exactly how far along is Iran's nuclear program? What are specifically in these sanctions, and what do they practically accomplish? Most importantly, how would these candidates militarily deal with such a problem, assuming the reality of the threat was accelerated?
During the very next segment, jobs and the economy, Raddatz did not let the candidates off the hook as easily. She asked a refreshingly frank question, "Can we get the unemployment rate below 6 percent, and how long will it take?"
She initially let both candidates get away with the usual political retorts. Biden would bring up that magic 47 percent number for the first time here, and would make sure to mention just how bad the economy was when he first took office.
Ryan would answer with all his camp's all too familiar platitudes -- Democrats had control of congress during the first half of Obama's presidency, and look at where that got us. Or, who can forget the failed stimulus argument. All fair points to be raised, but still, nothing new, and nothing direct. The question was not answered; the specific plans for the future were still left vague at best.
That's when Raddatz stepped up her game and pressed Ryan, "So what is your plan to get below 6 percent?"
Ryan had his prepared answer -- his five-point plan, which includes 4 percent economic growth and the creation of 12 million jobs over the next four years. This may be an echo of Romney's espoused policies from last week, but it did finally answer the question.
As the debate unfolded she became even more unyielding in her quest for candid answers. As Ryan talked about closing certain tax loopholes but maintaining revenue streams, she persistently asked him to be specific. And this time, when Ryan dodged the question, she made his answer perfectly clear, "No specifics, again?" It was this tough attitude that percolated as the debate progressed.
She ended her moderation opus with an unexpected issue -- abortion. With the two candidates being Catholic (a historical first by the way), they both agreed that life starts at conception. Ryan laid out exceptions to abortion for rape, incest, and life of the mother.
Biden was clear to mention that he would not push his views on others when it would pull on their rights, mentioning this as a difference between himself and Ryan. Raddatz seized the opportunity to dispel with the vagueness in this admittedly emotionally murky subject, and directly asked the question that counts:
"If a Romney/Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?" Check and mate, Mr. Lehrer.
To be clear, Raddatz was a fine moderator, and it was a pleasure watching her cut through the rhetorical baloney with increasing precision. However, her effectiveness will be best rated once we see the next two moderators, because right now, all we have to compare her to are the shortcomings of Jim Lehrer.