Activist president worried about activist moderator

After Mitt Romney’s blowout win in the first presidential debate, and Joe Biden’s blowout chompers in the Vice Presidential round, the debates have taken on an outsized importance this election season. Time Magazine unearthed an interesting nugget ahead of tomorrow night’s presidential town hall:

In a rare example of political unity, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have expressed concern to the Commission on Presidential Debates about how the moderator of the Tuesday town hall has publicly described her role, TIME has learned.

Rare, indeed. Unlike Obama’s first debate presumption that he and Mitt have “a somewhat similar position” on Social Security, it’s doubtful that their coinciding opinions on a moderator’s role are the result of Obama being too lazy to prepare a different answer. So why would they both want a moderator to butt out?

Romney surely recognizes that his first debate dominance was enabled by moderator Jim Lehrer “just letting them play”, as the sports cliché goes. Throughout their campaigns, Republicans are continually filtered by an unfriendly media, and the debate setting where they can speak directly to a large portion of the electorate is not one they want interrupted by self-aggrandizing moderators. 

Obama’s reasoning is more mysterious. An activist moderator who dubbed the Romney/Ryan ticket a “death wish” would surely be sympathetic to his cause. One possibility is that Obama dreads follow-up questions, such as the one that moderator Martha Raddatz asked Joe Biden on the Benghazi massacre, forcing a gaffe that led him to blame the intelligence community for bad information immediately following the attack. Minimizing questions about meaningless YouTube videos is to his advantage. Also, the Obama camp may have seen Biden’s constant interruptions as effective, and doesn’t want a rogue moderator derailing their game plan.

Enter tomorrow night’s town-hall debate moderator, Candy Crowley:

As Crowley put it last week, “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?’”
In the view of both campaigns and the commission, those and other recent comments by Crowley conflict with the language the two campaigns agreed to, which delineates a more limited role for the moderator of the town-hall debate.

Oh, so it’s the principle of the thing. When Barack Obama agrees to someone’s powers being “limited”, by golly he wants to make sure everyone sticks to that agreement. Based on his entire political history, he clearly believes that authorities have limited, well-defined roles, with checks and balances constraining said authorities. It all points to a deeply held belief in enabling a free people to do their thing, be it on the debate stage or in the economic marketplace.

If the sarcasm hasn’t yet dripped through your computer screen, let me be blunt… the Obama administration has, among other things, entered into a “war of choice” in Libya without Congressional approval (Article I, Section 8 violation), mandated that Catholic businesses violate their consciences by providing insurance plans with contraception and abortifacient coverage (Amendment 1 violation), and rewritten laws in the areas of immigration and welfare reform (Article I, Section 1 violation). Having fudged the Constitution so blatantly, it’s a bit ironic that he’d cite the authority of a debate agreement, no?

That aside, the campaigns have a point. An agreement is an agreement, and Candy Crowley should stick to it:

But if the Obama and Romney campaigns agreed to such terms, there is no evidence that Crowley did — or was ever asked to do so.


While I don’t expect Obama to wake up to the reality any time soon, Ms. Crowley’s presumed activism highlights an economic fact: People have the incentive to justify their existence. If the format was simply to let a town hall attendee ask a question and then have someone push a buzzer when a candidate’s two minute time allotment expired, then why exactly do we need a mainstream media personality there? We could probably find the town’s local judge, or just get the guy who operates the shot clock at university basketball games.

Even were she capable of neutrality and didn’t have an interest in the president’s reelection, Crowley would still benefit from letting people know she was there. The free publicity of engaging equally with two men vying for the most powerful position in the world is a valuable career move. Her incentive structure begets her activism.

And so it is with government. Politicians love taxes and revenue because those things give them the power to undertake big causes, making them appear vital and allowing them to mollify special interests, both to their electoral benefit. “There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government program”, as Reagan once said, because if the Tennessee Valley Authority had closed up shop after serving its Depression era mission, its staff would have been out of jobs. As the Time article shows, the debate commission offers a great example of incentives being skewed over time towards self-preservation:

Ever since the bipartisan panel took over the staging of the quadrennial debates in 1988, presidential campaigns of both parties have groused that the commission is frustrating to deal with and appears at times to represent bureaucratic and institutional concerns separate from the public interest.

This reality is why bloated government only gets more bloated, and unelected bureaucrats are a menace. However well-meaning and merited a new regulatory agency may be, it creates another set of people whose employment can only be justified by a need to write even more regulations. And find that need, they will. As Tocqueville warned so long ago, they’ll continue writing regulations until:

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

How many pages is the Federal Register at these days? If none of the town-hall attendees ask, hopefully Ms. Crowley will.

2 thoughts on “Activist president worried about activist moderator

  1. “Ever since the bipartisan panel took over the staging of the quadrennial debates in 1988, presidential campaigns of both parties have groused that the commission is frustrating to deal with and appears at times to represent bureaucratic and institutional concerns separate from the public interest.”
    IPAB death panels will be the same way.


  2. Pingback: Why does it take a disaster to remove the red tape? «

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