10/15/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

The VP Debate Could Have Been a Lot Better

Jim Lehrer was widely criticized for his failure to properly control the first presidential debate. Martha Raddatz has been just as widely praised for her performance last Thursday. While there were indeed things that Raddatz did right, this debate could have been much more useful for voters than it was. Her performance as moderator, and the debate's overall structure, deserve further scrutiny.

A debate moderator has two responsibilities: first, they pick and frame questions to be asked. And second, they must fight to keep the debate specific and factually accurate. After a good debate, voters should understand where candidates have gotten their information on key issues and what conclusions those candidates have drawn from that information. They should understand what the candidates believe, why they believe it, and have a sense of how the candidates came to form their opinions.

There were times during the debate when Raddatz guided Ryan and Biden through meaningful discussions. For example, she asked Biden about Benghazi intelligence failures, pushed Ryan for specifics on tax policy and defense spending, and asked for clarification on when military intervention abroad is justified.

That said, let's first take a look at the issue of framing -- or, as Glenn Greenwald put it, the "highly questionable assumptions tacitly embedded in the questions Raddatz asked." There were several times during the debate when Raddatz framed issues in ways that severely curtailed the scope of the conversation. Consider the debate's discussion of Libya. Raddatz asked questions concerned only with the attack that killed Chris Stevens. There were no questions about the constitutionality of U.S. actions targeting the Gaddafi regime (war was never declared by Congress) or about the wisdom of those actions in light of the post-war situation that has developed. It was a discussion focused exclusively on U.S. national security and terrorism.

Regarding Iran, Raddatz did repeatedly mention Bob Gates' cautionary words about a military strike, asking the candidates to comment on them. But she still began by presenting Iran's acquiring of a nuclear weapon as the top concern of those focused on U.S. national security. The entire discussion was therefore limited to the question of how to prevent that acquisition from occurring. Raddatz ultimately indicated that there were only two possible options going forward. As she said, "Well, let me ask you what's worse, war in the Middle East, another war in the Middle East, or a nuclear-armed Iran?" There was no meaningful questioning on why, exactly, Iran having a bomb would represent an unacceptable threat to the U.S. or our allies (shouldn't the American public be told why, in detail?), and no discussion of why war against Iran would be legal under international law (that's something officeholders should have to explain). And while the candidates discussed the effectiveness of the sanctions regime in place, Raddatz never asked them about the impact those sanctions are having on the Iranian people.

A third problem with framing occurred when Raddatz turned the debate to entitlement programs. "Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke," she said, "and taking a larger share of the budget in the process." But this topic is, at the very least, more nuanced than such a blunt assessment would suggest. It's not hard to find all kinds of objections to Raddatz's assertion. Two quick examples: Paul Krugman, for one, has roundly rejected the idea that Social Security is as insolvent as some suggest, as has David Cay Johnson. Both are Nobel Prize winners. (Glenn Greenwald highlighted Johnson's writings in the blog post linked to above.)

Before moving on, one more point on framing: No debate can cover every topic, but there were many controversial and consequential issues that Raddatz left out. One directly related to U.S. foreign policy and national security is American drone policy. Framing matters. If, for example, discussions of national security are dominated by talk of Iran's nuclear ambitions, then it's quite possible that the constitutionality, morality, and efficacy of drones will be ignored -- and it was.

There's a second, broader point to be made about this debate, one that has less to do with Raddatz and more to do with the debate's format and structure. For 90 minutes, Biden and Ryan made numerous assertions, but rarely did Raddatz make an attempt to challenge the factual accuracy of their statements. Some might claim that such checks are the responsibility of the debaters. It can also be argued that the press can always put together fact-checks post-facto.

But I believe such arguments short-change voters. I find it hard to imagine that the number of people who will critically review fact-checks after a debate comes anywhere near the number who will simply watch the debate itself without further investigation.

I would ask, then, what the average voter is supposed to do with an exchange like this one concerning tax policy:

BIDEN: Now, there's not enough -- the reason why the AEI study, the American Enterprise Institute study, the Tax Policy Center study, the reason they all say it's going -- taxes go up on the middle class, the only way you can find $5 trillion in loopholes is cut the mortgage deduction for middle-class people, cut the health care deduction, middle-class people, take away their ability to get a tax break to send their kids to college. That's why they arrive at it.
RADDATZ: Is he wrong about that?
RYAN: He is wrong about that. They're...
BIDEN: How's that?
RYAN: You can -- you can cut tax rates by 20 percent and still preserve these important preferences for middle-class taxpayers...
BIDEN: Not mathematically possible.
RYAN: It is mathematically possible. It's been done before. It's precisely what we're proposing.
BIDEN: It has never been done before.
RYAN: It's been done a couple of times, actually.
BIDEN: It has never been done before.
RYAN: Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates, increased growth. Ronald Reagan...
BIDEN: Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy?

How is the viewer to know who is right and who is wrong? Raddatz didn't ask anyone to prove their assertions, and the discussion simply continued.

What's so inexplicable about this state of affairs is that ABC, which broadcast the debate, was publishing a real-time fact-check on its website, a fact-check it advertised on screen during the debate. As that document reveals (along with others produced shortly after), there were plenty of facts the candidates either oversimplified or got wrong.

Again, one might argue that ABC provided viewers with the tools they needed to assess the debate's factual accuracy. But I doubt that anywhere near a majority of viewers watched the debate and read the website at the same time.

Nor should they have to. My question is this: why, at a time when fact-checks can be produced so quickly, should we permit candidates to assert incorrect information on national television without being immediately challenged? There's no way a moderator can be prepared to address any potentially problematic assertion before a debate starts. But research staffs can react to what is being said and get to the truth of the matter in almost no time at all. Twitter also serves as a rolling fact-check during these events.

There has to be a way to restructure debates so that real-time information can be fed to moderators, allowing them to push back against misinformation during the broadcast, when doing so will have the most impact on voters. Doing so would vastly improve the utility of these debates. When people can't evaluate the truth of what they've heard -- and as far as I can see, the average person (myself included) can evaluate very little of what's said without doing subsequent research -- then they are left to evaluate the only thing they can: who "won" the debate on style -- a.k.a., Obama seemed annoyed, but Biden was aggressive. But who cares? That's not what matters. What matters is trying to figure out if the candidates on stage know what they're talking about.

By critically evaluating the framing of issues ahead of time so that key lines of inquiry aren't cut out, and by building real-time fact-checking into the debate structure, we can help make these events far more useful for voters than they currently are. Yes, Raddatz asked some good questions. But let's not pretend that things couldn't have been better.