Debate moderator Jim Lehrer said those who criticized him for failing to control President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during Wednesday night’s debate should be directing their critiques at the debate’s new format, not him.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Lehrer said his role as moderator was more about getting Obama and Romney to describe their contrasts and not so much about his control over the candidates.
“Yes, there were times when I pushed them, and sometimes they ran over and ignored me and all that sort of stuff. So what? I mean, it isn’t about my power, my control or whatever,” Lehrer told the Post’s Paul Farhi in an interview published Friday. “It was about what the candidates were doing, what they were talking about and what impression they were leaving with the voters. That’s what this is about. It’s not about how I felt about things.”
Lehrer said it was “frustrating” that Romney and Obama wouldn’t answer his questions directly and that the candidates went over their allotted time.
“I kept reminding myself: ‘Hey, wait a minute. Waaait a minute. This isn’t about rules. This is about the reality of the exchange of the two candidates.’ So I just backed off. . . . I had no problem doing that,” Lehrer said in his defense.
In previous debates, each candidate had two minutes to answer a question and 90 seconds for a rebuttal. But under the new format announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, while Romney and Obama had two minutes to answer a question from Lehrer, there was no set time for a back-and-forth discussion.
When asked about drawbacks of the new format, Lehrer said he wasn’t able to prod the candidates on as many subjects as he would have liked.
“I had wanted to cover a lot more ground in terms of subjects. But it took longer because the candidates gave longer answers than I, in an ideal world, would have hoped. And so a lot of things went by the board because of that,” the PBS NewsHour host said. “But all of the discussion, it seemed to me, was about things that mattered. They weren’t talking about things off in the margins. They were talking about things that truly divide them. I was anxious to try to draw the distinctions and the choices and the differences. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I was not. But generally speaking, I thought that worked.”
Lehrer said although the new format “needs some tweaking,” he would like it to remain in place for future debates.
“Remember, whatever people are declaring about this debate, who won and who lost, they’re not talking about it the way they talked in the past,” he told the Post. “They’re not talking about gaffes or some little incident of some kind. They’re talking about what was said. Which is what it ought to be.”
What’s arguably being most talked about, at least on the Internet, was Romney’s suggestion that aid be cut to PBS in an effort to trim the deficit despite his love for Big Bird and Lehrer. The line sparked numerous memes on the web and a Twitter account, Fired Big Bird.
Lehrer was precluded from responding to the line in order to preserve his objectivity, but he later told the Post that Romney’s PBS bashing wasn’t that shocking to him.
“He’s said that before,” Lehrer said. “That didn’t bother me or surprise me.”