How Jim Lehrer Lost The Debate

At the start of Wednesday's presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer said he would place an emphasis on “differences, specifics, and choices.” But Lehrer missed repeated opportunities to press Mitt Romney into offering specifics on his policy proposals -- just one of the ways in which he lost control of the debate.

During the debate, President Obama echoed the consensus among economic experts who have pointed out that Romney has consistently refused to detail which loopholes he would close to pay for his planned tax cuts, at one point stating that Romney has “been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn't been able to identify them.” In each case, Lehrer failed to ask Romney which deductions and loopholes he would eliminate.

Similarly, Lehrer failed to press Romney for details on how he would replace Obama's health care reform plan, letting Romney assert that he has a detailed plan. But as MSNBC's Ezra Klein pointed out, the health care plan on Romney's website is just 396 words, “about half the length of an average op-ed column.” Klein added that Romney “was able to hide in the sort of pockets of vagueness he created.”

His failure to press Romney for details was one symptom of Lehrer losing control of the debate, a conclusion that was shared across various media outlets:

  • USA Today's Robert Bianco wrote that Lehrer “seemed to give up” on failing to hold the candidates to the predetermined time limits. “Clearly, Lehrer lost control, early and often,” Bianco added.
  • The Week noted that Romney “seemed to have his way with” Lehrer.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek stated, “Some compared Lehrer with the replacement officials called up during the strike by National Football League referees.”
  • New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen tweeted that “Romney took strong advantage of a weak moderator.”

Romney has been repeatedly criticized for failing to offer details of his proposals, and Lehrer missed every opportunity to push Romney on those details and make the debate about policy specifics.