Jim Lehrer: Useless

The "domestic issues" debate involved hardly any domestic issues -- and Jim Lehrer's passivity didn't help

Published October 4, 2012 3:45PM (EDT)

   (AP/Michael Reynolds)
(AP/Michael Reynolds)

The entire conventional wisdom generation machine runs so rapidly now (it used to take like 24 hours for "everyone" to "agree" that someone "won" the debate!) that the political class is already on the backlash to the backlash to Jim Lehrer's performance as moderator at last night's presidential debate. (The "In Defense of Jim Lehrer" pieces began running, I swear to god, before the takedowns were finished.) But let's please not let him off the hook: He was terrible.

I have no issue with the weird format. "Anything goes, just shout at each other until you run out of things to say" is fine with me, I don't care that much about strictly enforced time limits when people are trying to make points, I'm fine with candidates directly addressing each other.

And the people who hated Lehrer don't "blame" him for Obama's slightly sleepy and decidedly non-knife-twisting performance.

It's just that Lehrer asked incredibly stupid questions. I know it thrilled Chuck Todd that this was a "serious," "policy-heavy" debate, but the candidates just had one argument about Romney's vague tax plan -- making the same points repeatedly -- for more than the first half-hour. Lehrer's insistence on asking the candidates to confirm that they have different ideas about things was bizarre -- Ralph Nader was not onstage arguing that they were Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

This was the "domestic issues debate." Domestic issues, I thought, encompassed a lot. It turns out "domestic issues" is like three things that Beltway columnists care about a lot.

Here are the actual questions -- the only questions! -- Lehrer asked:

  • LEHRER: Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Let’s start the economy, segment one, and let’s begin with jobs. What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?
  • And the question, you each have two minutes on this, and Governor Romney, you -- you go first because the president went first on segment one. And the question is this, what are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?
  • LEHRER: Governor, what about Simpson-Bowles? Do you support Simpson-Bowles?
  • LEHRER: All right? All right. This is segment three, the economy. Entitlements. First -- first answer goes to you, two minutes, Mr. President. Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?
  • LEHRER: All right. Can we -- can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice -- a clear choice between the two of you on Medicare?
  • LEHRER: All right. So to finish quickly, briefly, on the economy, what is your view about the level of federal regulation of the economy right now? Is there too much? And in your case, Mr. President, is there -- should there be more?
  • LEHRER: Do you want to repeal Dodd-Frank?
  • LEHRER: All right. I think we have another clear difference between the two of you. Now, let’s move to health care where I know there is a clear difference, and that has to do with the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. And it’s a two-minute new -- new segment, and that means two minutes each. And you go first, Governor Romney.
  • LEHRER: That is a terrific segue to our next segment, and is the role of government. And -- and let’s see. Role of government. And it is -- you are first on this, Mr. President. And the question is this. Do you believe, both of you -- but you had the first two minutes on this, Mr. President -- do you believe there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?
  • LEHRER: All right. Let’s go through some specifics in terms of what -- how each of you views the role of government. How do -- education. Does the federal government have a responsibility to improve the quality of public education in America?
  • LEHRER: Oh, well, no. But the fact is government -- the role of government and governing, we’ve lost a pod in other words. So we only have three -- three minutes left in the -- in the debate before we go to your closing statements. And so I want to ask finally here, and remember, we’ve got three minutes total time here -- and the question is this. Many of the legislative functions of the federal government right now are in a state of paralysis as a result of partisan gridlock. If elected, in your case, if re-elected, in your case, what would you do about that?

Not counting follow-ups (SIMPSON-BOWLES, god help us), these were the questions: "How would you create jobs?" "How would you fix the deficit?" "Entitlements?" "Are there too many regulations or not enough regulations?" (The dumbest question of the night!) "Obamacare?" "Do you guys have a rhetorical disagreement about the impossibly amorphous concept of 'the role of government'"?" And finally "how would you fix partisan gridlock?"

So! Sorry, immigration, reproductive health, LGBT civil rights, the environment, campaign finance, the drug war, and voting rights: None of you matter as much as Simpson effing Bowles! (But do you begin to understand why Beltway pundit and commentator types loved this debate so much? It hit all their pet topics!) "Are there too many regulations" is more important than "do you think we should maybe do anything at all to address catastrophic climate change." (Not that either candidate wants to talk about that.)

All of Lehrer's actually useful questions -- "jobs" and healthcare, basically -- could have been taken care of in an hour, leaving time for someone a little more on the ball to maybe show up and ask some other questions that some Americans might have also been sorta curious about.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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2012 Elections 2012 Presidential Debates Jim Lehrer Presidential Debates