Tomorrow night’s presidential debate has been positioned as a critical one for President Obama after his passive showing in his first outing and Vice President Biden’s fiery attempt to regain momentum. But it’s also a debate that highlights two important issues: the essential invisibility of women’s issues (as well as other social issues like gay rights and immigration reform) in this year’s presidential debates, and the expectation of deference, rather than vigorous questioning, from presidential debate moderators. The person with the hardest task tomorrow probably isn’t President Obama: it’s moderator and CNN anchor Candy Crowley.
As a woman, a journalist, and a debate viewer, I’m at least glad to hear that Crowley views her role as to push forward the debate and to challenge the responses the candidates give the audience, or, as she she said of her plan for the debate: “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?’” At Time, Mark Halperin has a long piece up about how both the Obama and Romney campaigns have reacted to that statement of intent, which is to say, unenthusiastically. But Crowley apparently was never asked to abide by the memorandum of understanding that the campaigns agreed upon before the debates started, which govern other issues like banning pledges and naming people in the audience other than their own families. And it’s telling that the campaigns expect her to be on board even without asking her to agree.
It’s already frustrating that the lone female moderator for the presidential debates was assigned to the town hall-format debate, a setting where the Gallup Organization picks the audience, who in turn get to submit questions. Crowley can cut questions and order them, and there is room for her to ask follow-up questions, though she is obviously constrained by the subjects the attendees prioritize. Through both the first presidential debate and the lone vice-presidential debate, there’s been a single question asked about issues that particularly concern women, Martha Raddatz’s query about how Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan’s religious beliefs affected their personal views of abortion. There are a lot of questions that could be posed about the candidate’s national approaches to abortion policy alone, not to mention the inquiries that moderators, male and female alike, could make into the many creeping restrictions on women’s reproductive health and autonomy on the state level.It’s frustrating that women should have to be responsible for raising questions about issues like contraception or pay equity, which of course affect men as well. But given that it seems that if women and the men who care about these issues care about these issues want to see them discussed, women have to ask them ourselves, it’s difficult to see Crowley assigned the debate with this format and its limitations.
In this context, how Crowley handles the debate will be a test of the independence both for the journalists moderating the debates, and for the women who are accorded the rare opportunity to moderate. It would be an awful shame, after a debate season kicked off by Jim Lehrer’s cringe-inducing deference, failure to steer the debate, and focus on the milquetoast task of establishing that the candidates believe they differ from each other, if Crowley acted as a course correction and then got slammed for it. Lehrer merely seemed asleep at the wheel. Crowley’s at risk of being blamed not just for being more aggressive than she’s expected to be, but for breaking rules, even if she never agreed to them. I hope she goes ahead anyway, pushing back against the idea that she, or any other moderator, no matter their gender, should have deference to the men who want to run the free world as their main concern when they sit down to debate.