No presidential debate analysis is complete without judging the moderation. Bob Schieffer of CBS moderated the debate last night and appeared to do well, at least in getting the two men to argue with each other. There did not appear to be any significant time differentials or “last word” issues. In fact, the only time I thought about Schieffer’s peformance last night was when he asked about abortion — a topic inexplicably avoided by the three previous debate moderators.
In the previous debates, the bias demonstrated itself in the questions. According to Andrew Malcom’s transcript, here are Schieffer’s questions:
- On the new economics plans this week: “I will ask both of you: Why is your plan better than his?”
- Paraphrasing: What specific programs will you cut in light of the economic crisis?
- Paraphrasing: Do you think you can balance the budget in four years?
- Leadership and the campaign tone: “Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other’s face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?
- “Why would the country be better off if your running mate became president rather than his running mate?”
- “Would each of you give us a number, a specific number of how much you believe we can reduce our foreign oil imports during your first term?”
- Health care: “Given the current economic situation, would either of you now favor controlling health care costs over expanding health care coverage?”
- Judiciary and abortion: “Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue?”
- Education: “The U.S. spends more per capita than any other country on education. Yet, by every international measurement, in math and science competence, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, we trail most of the countries of the world. The implications of this are clearly obvious. Some even say it poses a threat to our national security. Do you feel that way and what do you intend to do about it?”
One could claim that a lack of foreign-policy questions hurt McCain, but the two participants agreed weeks ago to focus on domestic-policy issues in this debate. Schieffer stuck to the plan; had a major foreign-policy crisis reared its head in the last few days, he probably would have included it, but it didn’t. I don’t see any particular bias, soft or otherwise, in the question selection or their wording. In fact, I was surprised to hear the issue of abortion raised, although I do notice that gun control didn’t come up …. again.
The first word/last word dynamic is actually rather interesting. In the nine topics, Schieffer gave McCain the first word five times and Obama four. McCain, however, stayed aggressive and got the last word in seven of the nine topics, including this zinger on the last question:
MCCAIN: Because there’s not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn’t do it, even though it’s working. I got it.
I didn’t see any clear evidence of bias in Schieffer’s performance. I thought he did a credible job as moderator, probably better than I expected. He managed to keep it lively without excessively interfering in the exchanges.