Bipartisanship: Both sides complain about next debate moderator

There haven’t been many points of bipartisanship in this general-election season, so perhaps we should celebrate Mark Halperin’s report at Time of one rare instance — no matter how meaningless it is.  The next debate moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, offered her perspective on her role last week in tomorrow’s townhall-style debate, and both presidential candidates immediately filed objections with the Commission on Presidential Debates:

In a rare example of political unity, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have expressed concern to the Commission on Presidential Debates about how the moderator of the Tuesday town hall has publicly described her role, TIME has learned.

While an early October memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns and the bipartisan commission sponsoring the debates suggests CNN’s Candy Crowley would play a limited role in the Tuesday-night session, Crowley, who is not a party to that agreement, has done a series of interviews on her network in which she has suggested she will assume a broader set of responsibilities. As Crowley put it last week, “Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?’”

The problem with that is the purpose of the format itself.  Crowley’s moderating strategy works fine in a normal debate format, with just two candidates, one moderator, and a live audience on mute.  In a townhall debate, it’s supposed to be the voters (likely voters supplied by Gallup, in this case) that drive the conversation, with the moderator on board just to monitor time allowances.  It’s the least-interesting format for a moderator, which is probably why Crowley has chafed at the limitations in the memorandum:

“In managing the two-minute comment periods, the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic … The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period.”

The format itself is kind of a cheat, though.  Townhall debates use pre-selected questions, not extemporaneous choices, which makes it look more dramatic than it is.  The voters do drive the conversation, but only in a carefully-controlled environment.  Crowley might be pardoned for making the debate a little more honestly spontaneous than it actually will be.

Not that it will make much difference, anyway.  The crucial debate was the first one, where Mitt Romney had to show that he can stand on the same stage as Barack Obama and look every bit as presidential as the incumbent — and ended up looking far more presidential.  Obama wants to come back in this debate to recast himself as ebullient and energetic, but Bob Woodward explains why that might be a trap, too:

Any changes made by Obama in this debate will be considered in the context of his flop two weeks ago.  He can’t escape that, and in this format Obama has only limited opportunities to get aggressive with Romney, anyway.  The best he can hope is that Romney suffers an unprecedented failure, which is unlikely given the crucible of the twenty-plus debates in the Republican primary.