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Metro

Kevin Cullen

Accentuate candidates, eliminate moderator

Before she was Martha Raddatz at ABC News, she was Martha Bradlee here at Channel 5, WCVB-TV, and she was a heck of a reporter.

But what do I know? Turns out that in 1991, while she was still working for Channel 5, she got married to a guy named Julius Genachowski, and he invited one of his Harvard Law School classmates to the wedding.

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The classmate was named Barack Obama, so some people think that Martha Raddatz had no business moderating the vice presidential debate the other night.

Never mind that the wedding was 21 years ago. Never mind that Raddatz divorced Genachowski six years later. Never mind that our former governor and current presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and his campaign knew about all this and never raised an objection with the Commission on Presidential Debates. Obama appointed Genachowski to chair the Federal Communications Commission, so that’s all there is to it. The fix was in. And never mind that many objective observers thought Raddatz did a good job the other night while Paul Ryan looked deadly serious and Joe Biden laughed himself silly.

If Raddatz has a bias, it’s in favor of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines because she’s one of the dwindling number of journalists who has actually gone into war zones with them. I wish more of our politicians were as biased toward them as she is.

But that’s beside the point. In this election cycle, more than any in memory, the role and performance of the debate moderator has been as widely discussed as anything the candidates say. Which is not good.

Jim Lehrer looked like a deer in the headlights, people were saying, letting Romney have his way with Obama. But others were asking why was he moderating anyway? Everybody knows PBS is full of commies, right?

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I thought Jon Keller, the WBZ political analyst, did a good job moderating the first Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren Senate debate. But when I mentioned that to a Democratic political operative, he leaned in conspiratorially and said, “You know, Keller’s son works for the Massachusetts Republican Party.”

Actually, I do know that. But what has that got to do with Jon Keller or the price of a cup of coffee?

The charge of moderator bias more often reveals the bias of the person making the charge. But it has become too much of a distraction and it is eminently avoidable.

There is only one way to remove the claim of moderator bias and that is to remove the moderator. The debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, as they vied for a US Senate seat in Illinois, are held up to this day as a model of democracy at a time when the future of this country’s democracy was very much at stake.

People obviously had much longer attention spans back then and fewer distractions — no iPads, no NFL — and the Lincoln-Douglas debates went on for three hours at a pop. And they had seven of them. But what was particularly distinctive about them is that there was no moderator, no referee. Just a clock. One candidate spoke for an hour. The other was given an hour and a half to respond. Then the first guy got a half-hour rejoinder.

A three-hour debate is pushing it, and letting candidates drone on for such long periods of time doesn’t sound inviting, but the bigger idea is letting them referee themselves. They are, presumably, adults and should be able to figure out what to talk about, what’s important to voters, what’s important to the state or the country, and if they don’t do that they will suffer electoral consequences. If they think it’s to their advantage to raise specious issues, or to belittle their opponent with ad hominem attacks, they will either be rewarded or punished at the polls as a result. The candidates’ biases will be the only ones on display, and voters can judge them accordingly.

The polls tell us we are all frustrated by partisanship, by the inability of politicians of different parties and different philosophies to work with each other for the common good. When these people get to Washington, there is no one standing between them in the aisle, setting the ground rules, telling them what’s important, telling them how to treat each other.

What better way to judge their capabilities, their talent, and their decency, or their lack of all three, than to let them debate opponents without a buffer?

Oh, and not for nothin’, but John King, that guy from CNN who is moderating the last Brown-Warren debate in a couple of weeks, is wicked biased. He grew up in Dorchester and he is so biased toward . . . St. Mark’s Parish.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this column includes a quotation that misstated the employment status of Barney Keller, son of WBZ political analyst Jon Keller. He no longer works for the state Republican Party.

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