Given the critical role that debates have played in this presidential cycle, it’s not surprising that so much attention has fallen, of late, on the moderators. Two weeks ago, PBS’s Jim Lehrer was roundly mocked for his failure to control the conversation between Governor Mitt Romney and President Obama. Now, CNN’s Candy Crowley is in the spotlight for her more forceful interjection during a discussion about the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi.
When Romney, in finger-pointing prosecutorial mode, began advancing on Obama, insisting that the president was lying when he said he had called the attacks “acts of terror” on the very first morning, Crowley fact-checked him on the fly. She noted that Obama “did, in fact” use the word “terror” in a Rose Garden speech the day after the attacks, prompting Obama to say, “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”
The exchange has been largely viewed as a boost to Obama, but, in truth, Crowley helped Romney just as much. She also gave credence to Romney’s overarching point: that for many days afterward, the Obama administration gave conflicting public statements about the source of the attacks. (Alas, that part of her response might have been swallowed a bit in the crosstalk.) More importantly, Crowley changed the subject, preventing Romney from compounding his mistake. Had Romney kept pressing, only to be revealed to have been wrong, he would have looked like a bullying blowhard. Obama, it was clear, would have been happy to watch his opponent go on and on.
Moderators always have to walk a fine line between seeming evenhanded and pressing for specifics — a task that’s particularly difficult when both candidates are trying to hold the floor for as long as possible. And no, their chief role shouldn’t be to fact-check the candidates in real time; given the nature of political rhetoric, that would be nearly impossible, anyway. But in lending some reality to an individual moment, Crowley didn’t overstep. She merely advanced the conversation.