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(Breaking radio silence on my vacation with this rant.)

For a long time now, moderators in a candidate debate have been relatively superficial. A very specific question, say, "What type of concessions would you be willing to make in order to provide an incentive for Iran to commit to not develop nuclear weapons?" may as well be "Blah blah blah please give the portion of your stump speech on Iran blah blah blah blah." I'd like to at least see candidates forced to say something like "I don't think it's prudent to give away details of negotiations ahead of time" before going into generalities (and on non-foreign relations related questions, i don't think something like that is even acceptable). But moderators, for the most part, have let the candidates get away with that sort of crap, sometimes attempting a weak follow up, sometimes throwing up their hands and saying "It's your format, gentlemen." But at least candidates have been forced to stay at least generally on topic. You could more or less replace the moderator with a fishbowl that had index cards with various high level topics on them, but at least the candidates talked about the topic on the card.

Last night in the Palin/Biden debate we saw the moderator sink to new levels of irrelevancy. Gwen Ifill was just terrible. Or rather, Sarah Palin was absolutely terrible, but in a way that a lot of people may have not noticed, and Ifill let her get away with it. I don't know if it's because the Republicans spent the past few weeks screaming about Ifill's "bias", or if it was because of the agreed upon format that there would be no follow-ups, but what she allowed to happen was a failure of her responsibilities as a journalist.

Sarah Palin would literally not talk about the topics she was asked about. Asked about her position on the Wall Street bailout, she repeatedly talked about how she supported tax cuts or her energy policy. Asked about whether or not she supported intervention in Darfur, she talked about how she was a Washington outsider. Asked to describe her Achilles' Heel, she talked about how great a boon her experience as a governor and as a member of the "heartland" would be. At one point she said to Joe Biden, "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."

Palin has shown herself to be just fine at reciting talking points. Where she got into trouble in her recent interviews with Gibson and Couric wasn't usually in the first response to the question (unless the question didn't directly relate to a talking point she had prepared), but as they tried to probe deeper and get beyond the intitial platitudes. There was no follow up here, but that was apparently what they agreed to. Shame on the Democrats as well for agreeing to such a substance-free format, but what Ifill allowed Palin to get away with was even worse. You can't answer a question on the Wall Street bailout by giving a speech on tax cuts or energy policy. It just shouldn't be allowed. It should at least be pointed out.

In my opinion Biden should have done more to point out her non-sequitors, but he was clearly coached to play it safe and leave Palin alone so he didn't look like a bully. All of his attacks were directed at McCain. This was frustrating, but probably a good strategy. And it really shouldn't have been his job to make sure that the basic format was being adhered to. That's the moderator's role. And Gwen Ifill did a terrible job.

By fnord12 | October 3, 2008, 11:07 AM | Liberal Outrage