Opinion

Candidate crossfire takes down debates

In Iowa and nationally. moderators step in

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst argues a point from opponent Theresa Greenfield at the Sept. 28 #x201c;Iowa Press#x201d; Senate Deb
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst argues a point from opponent Theresa Greenfield at the Sept. 28 “Iowa Press” Senate Debate at the Iowa PBS studios. (Photo supplied by Iowa PBS)

Moderators for political candidate debates, in one sense, are like referees at sporting events: if they do their job well, nobody talks about them.

That’s the way most moderators like it.

They simply want to ask the pertinent questions and then fade into the background as the candidates answer.

There was no such luck this past week for David Yepsen and Chris Wallace.

Yepsen moderated Iowa’s U.S. Senate debate for Iowa PBS, and Wallace, of Fox News, moderated the presidential debate. Both were at times overwhelmed by the candidates as they talked over each other and ignored pleas for order. And the post-mortem for both debates included, at least in part, discussion about how the candidates went off the rails and the moderators attempted, often in vain, to restore order.

During the Sept. 28 U.S. Senate debate on Iowa PBS, Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Theresa Greenfield on a few occasions got into back-and-forth discussions where neither ceded ground and both continued speaking — exchanges that were indecipherable to viewers.

The official Iowa PBS debate transcript includes “speaking simultaneously” nine times.

Yepsen pleaded with Ernst and Greenfield to speak one at a time and reminded them they were not participating under the rules to which their campaigns agreed.

During one such exchange well into the hourlong debate, Yepsen attempted to appeal to the rivals’ better angels.

“Do either of you think you’re acting like a U.S. senator? Is this the way Iowans expect their senator to act?” Yepsen asked.

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Still, there were three instances of “speaking simultaneously” after Yepsen’s plea.

Little did Yepsen know that he got off easy. Because the next night, Wallace walked into a national tornado.

President Donald Trump from the opening moments of Tuesday night’s presidential debate was on the attack, flouting debate rules and constantly talking over former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden also jumped in and had to be reined in by Wallace, but Trump was far more egregious in talking over his opponent.

Wallace repeatedly attempted to persuade Trump to stop talking over Biden. Sometimes it worked; often, it did not.

By debate’s end, Wallace was almost as much the story of the debate as were the candidates. His performance drew sympathy and praise from some, pointed criticism from others.

Regardless of how you feel about Wallace’s performance, what’s most unfortunate is that his work was up for discussion at all. One could argue part of the reason Wallace’s work became part of the story was his own fault, that he could have done better. But the candidates share responsibility, too, and in this case Trump’s strategy clearly was to be as disruptive as possible.

Surely all the journalists who are preparing for future debates, both presidential and here in Iowa, saw what happened this past week and are contemplating how they will operate if and when the candidates start to run wild again.

Hopefully, they won’t. Or if they do, hopefully those moderators are prepared and have a plan for maintaining some semblance of order.

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Because if they don’t, if we get more debates like the ones we got this past week, well … ask yourself this: If you watched either debate, what did you learn about the candidates?

I suspect I know your answer.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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