03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Debate Moderators Asleep At The Switch

As always, I can't help seem to get to the end of these interminable debates without heaving a dumbstruck sigh, wondering how the people who get picked to moderate these affairs ever earned their reputation for intellectual rigor. There are moments when the Tim Russerts of the world (including Tim Russert himself) really lay into these candidates, and make an effort to expose their shortcomings. But this gotcha game rarely serves the public interest. Matt Yglesias captured the calculus quite well at one point back in November of last year, when he remarked, "Under this new dynamic, the role of the moderate is not to play host to an interesting informative discussion but rather to maximize the odds that some particular 10 second snippet of an hour-long broadcast will be worthy of rebroadcast. Hence, the focus on inane questions designed less to draw out an illuminating remark than to trip someone up."

The state of play in these debates has not improved since November, and there are numerous examples from tonight. As we've already related, John McCain got to skate by, denying he ever said that he had a less-informed grip on economic issues. McCain incredulously huffed at Russert, saying that he didn't know where he got the quote. Russert clearly had the quote right in front of him, but did he call out McCain? Of course not. He just breezed on to his next question. Similarly, no attempt was made to either fact-check Rudy Giuliani's misinformed understanding of the wet-foot/dry-foot distinction made for Cuban refugees (the facts of which our own Sam Stein rather easily ran to ground), or to contest Giuliani's confounding logic problem (if Cubans get a free pass because of Castro's extraordinary despotism, then why favor those who make it all the way to shore?).

But there were two examples of this lack of rigor on the part of the moderators that were just so astoundingly egregious that special mention must be made. The first example came in the discussion of the Iraq strategy. McCain was questioned on whether his plan to remain in Iraq indefinitely was sustainable, given the fact that "our military leaders tell us that our army is on the verge of breaking." McCain's first response was to state, "I know of no military leader, including General Petraeus, who says we can't sustain our effort in Iraq. So you're wrong." The very next thing Brian Williams did was to cite a report from General Barry McCaffrey - a military leader that McCain's probably heard of - that stated "the U.S. Army is too small and too poorly resourced to continue successful counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan at the current level." This report drives a stake right through the heart of McCain's contention, but Williams inexplicably threw the query to Mitt Romney! If the questions are so vacuum-sealed and scripted, why do we need a "newsman" to read them?

Later in the debate, it got even more ridiculous. As has been pointed out, one of the central tenets of Mike Huckabee's "fair tax" pitch is a glaring example of innumeracy that nobody in the media seems to have the wherewithal to challenge. And once again, this matter came up:

RUSSERT: The Citizens For Tax Justice say that 93% of Americans, in effect, pay less than 15% tax right now. You're imposing a 30% sales tax. How does that help the 93% of Americans who are paying 15% or less right now?

HUCKABEE: Well first of all Tim, it's 23%, if we were to break even.

Huckabee's contention that a 30% tax increase is actually a 23% tax increase is founded on nothing more than an inability to do grade school mathematics. The utter, fundamental stupidity of Huckabee's math has been well documented and mocked. But the underlying problem isn't merely an inability to master this one algorithm - it's that Huckabee makes a whole raft of promises on the fair tax, selling it on its percentages of benefit and the way it favors the poor through something he calls a "prebate." How can any of it be trusted, though, if the man cannot derive the correct percentage of increase when 100 becomes 130? Russert has received a fine, Jesuitical education: surely he's capable of grasping the difference between 23% and 30%. But he doesn't even notice!

It's all so depressing, watching supposedly seasoned journalists take wide passes at questions that could help voters break through the candidates' carefully manufactured remarks and hold them accountable. But accountability, as always, takes a backseat to the search for the salable sound bite.