Before last night's debate, both the Obama and Romney camps expressed their concern that moderator Candy Crowley might go rogue and act like something resembling a journalist, not merely keeping time and introducing questioners but interjecting to get clarifications and ask follow-ups. Once the debate was over, it was only conservatives complaining about her.
Some found her biased from start to finish, but all criticized her for her intervention on the somewhat absurd question of what words President Obama used and when to describe the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But a close look at what went on in the debate reveals that Crowley was actually judiciously even-handed, and if anything, may have done more favors for Romney. Before we discuss how, here are some of the reactions from the right:
- "We're done with the second presidential debate, but it was apparent 45 minutes in that between the questions Crowley chose and her handling of who was allowed to speak and when, that this debate was a total and complete setup to rehabilitate Barack Obama."
- "Candy Crowley, the CNN moderator in charge of tonight's debate, covered for President Obama by endorsing his false narrative of the killings in Libya."
- "I thought the questions, prescreened by Candy Crowley, were for the most part indistinguishable from questions the Obama campaign might as well have drafted for her. Nearly every one was asked from a fundamentally liberal premise."
- "Ms. Crowley's decision to buttress Obama’s declaration that Romney was being dishonest on Libya, however, will go into the Republican Party's media-bias file for decades to come."
- "Make no mistake, this was an attempt to cover for President Obama, who has been bleeding on the issue all week."
Plenty of other conservatives asserted that Crowley was incorrect on the Libya question but didn't charge her with being in the tank for Obama. We'll address the Libya question specifically in a moment, but let's look at the two claims being made about Crowley: that she chose questions that would be helpful to Obama, and that when she interjected, it was in ways that were unfriendly to Romney. Neither one holds up.
First, the questions. All the attendees submitted questions they would like to ask the candidates, and Crowley chose those which would be asked. There were 11 questions asked of the candidates. By my count, 5 were neutral, 3 should have pleased the Romney team, and 3 should have pleased the Obama team. First, the neutral ones:
- "Mr. President, Governor Romney, as a 20-year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. Can—what can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?"
- "[Governor] Romney, what do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?"
- "President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or plan to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?"
- "The outsourcing of American jobs overseas has taken a toll on our economy. What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here in the United States?"
- "Each of you: What do you believe is the biggest misperception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate? Using specific examples, can you take this opportunity to debunk that misperception and set us straight?"
You might argue that the gun question was unfriendly to Obama, since the real answer is that he has done absolutely nothing to limit the availability of assault weapons and has no plans to do anything in his second term, but we can set that aside. On the other hand, you could say that the immigration question, since it called immigrants "productive members of society," came from a more liberal perspective, but it was hardly hostile to Romney's position on the issue. The outsourcing question may have teed up criticisms Obama likes to make of Bain Capital, but it also gave Romney the opportunity to repeat his messages about job creation. In short, though you might quibble about one or another of these, none of them was particularly skewed in favor of one candidate or another.
There were, however, three questions that seemed quite favorable to Obama:
- "Governor Romney, you have stated that if you're elected president, you would plan to reduce the tax rates for all the tax brackets and that you would work with the Congress to eliminate some deductions in order to make up for the loss in revenue. Concerning the—these various deductions—the mortgage deduction, the charitable deductions, the child tax credit and also the—oh, what's that other credit? Oh, I remember. The education credits, which are important to me because I have children in college. What would be your position on those things, which are important for the middle class?"
- "In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?"
- "Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter because I'm disappointed with the lack of progress I've seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America's economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?"
These questions came all in a row, which probably had conservatives throwing up their hands and insisting that the choice of questions must be biased. The first and third directly played into attacks on Romney that the Obama campaign has made, and while pay equity hasn't been discussed much in the campaign, the second question certainly came from a more liberal perspective (assuming that men and women ought to earn the same amount!). If these eight were the only questions asked during the debate, those charging that Crowley intentionally picked questions friendlier to Obama might have a case. But here are the remaining three questions, all addressed to the President:
- "Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?"
- "Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012? I'm not that optimistic as I was in 2012. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive."
- "This question actually comes from a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola yesterday. We were sitting around talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?"
The first and third questions could have come straight from a comment thread on a conservative web site or a listener of Sean Hannity's radio show; these are things conservatives have been steamed about for years, in the case of Secretary Chu, and weeks, in the case of Libya. As for the second question, the disillusioned Obama voter has been a major theme of the Romney campaign ever since their focus groups revealed that people who voted for Obama in 2008 but were now on the fence didn't want to hear the President bashed. The Romney campaign has aired ads trying to convince former Obama voters that it's OK to vote against the president; this theme is reinforced with a super PAC campaign called "Why I Changed My Vote." So that question was one they couldn't have been happier about.
So in sum, there was no evident skew to the questions Crowley chose. But what about what she herself said? It turns out that just as there were 11 questions, Crowley interjected with substantive questions or comments 11 times during the debate (beyond introducing questioners and asking the candidates to sit down and shut up already, which she had to do many times as both Romney and Obama took the time limits as nothing more than a suggestion). Some of these were clarifications or restatements of questions to get the candidates to elaborate, while a few actually went more in depth on the subject being discussed. By my count, four of those interjections were neutral, three were more favorable to Obama, and four were more favorable to Romney. My count of neutral interjections includes the one on Libya, and when you actually look back at it, you'll see why. Here they are:
- "Governor, let me ask the president something about what you just said. The governor says that he is not going to allow the top 5 percent—I believe is what he said—to have a tax cut, that it will all even out, that what he wants to do is give that tax cut to the middle class. Settled?"
- "He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take—it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that."
- "IPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China, and one of the major reasons is labor is so much cheaper here. How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?"
- "Let me go to the president here, because we really are running out of time. And the question is can we ever get—we can't get wages like that. It can't be sustained here."
Once again, you could quibble about the first one—Crowley is essentially repeating what Romney argued and asking Obama for a response, but I suppose one might claim that any repetition of Romney's tax claims constitutes an attack on Romney, since his claims are absurd. But that's a close call. As for the third and fourth, they both came in one discussion of bringing jobs home from overseas; Crowley was trying to get the candidates to address the question of whether low-wage manufacturing jobs will ever return. That's something that doesn't inherently advantage either candidate. Finally, on the Libya question, Romney's charge had two parts: 1) Obama didn't call the Benghazi attack "terror" or "terrorism" quickly enough, and 2) It took the administration two weeks to acknowledge that the video that started the protests in Cairo was not a factor in Benghazi. As Romney and Obama were bickering over this, Crowley interjected that Obama was correct on the first point, while Romney was correct on the second point.
Why conservatives got so worked up about those two sentences Crowley spoke, I don't really know. But she was clearly clarifying for the audience—accurately—that part of Romney's charge was true and part wasn't. You can argue, as some conservatives have, that the moderator should never correct a candidate during a debate. But you can't really argue that this was somehow unfair to Romney.
On to the interjections that did actually favor one candidate or another. Here are the three that were more favorable to Obama:
- "Governor, let's—before we get into a vast array of who said what—what study says what, if it shouldn't add up, if somehow when you get in there, there isn't enough tax revenue coming in, if somehow the numbers don't add up, would you be willing to look again at a 20 percent..."
- "Governor, if I could, the question was about these assault weapons that once were banned and are no longer banned. I know that you signed an assault weapons ban when you were in Massachusetts. Obviously with this question, you no longer do support that. Why is that? Given the kind of violence that we see sometimes with these mass killings, why is it that you've changed your mind?"
- "So if I could, if you could get people to agree to it, you'd be for it."
The first question is hardly unfair or biased, it simply asks Romney what he plans to do if he doesn't have enough revenue. Given the controversy over the size of Romney's phantom list of high-end deductions which he claims will pay for the rate cuts he proposes, it seems a perfectly legitimate question. But we can score that one as favorable to Romney. I've counted the last two as distinct interjections, because they were separated by some comments by Romney about guns. In the second, Crowley does introduce a new piece of information, which is that Romney signed an assault weapons ban as governor but now opposes such a ban. While it's a highly relevant fact in a discussion about assault weapons, it may have been something she could have left for Obama to bring up or not.
So that's three interjections favorable to Obama. Here are the four favorable to Romney:
- "Just quickly, what can you do—we're looking at a situation where 40 percent of the unemployed have been unemployed for six months or more. They don't have the two years that Jeremy has. What about those long- term unemployed who need a job right now?"
- "Mr. President, let me just see if I can move you to the gist of this question, which is are we looking at the new normal? I can tell you that tomorrow morning, a lot of people in Hempstead will wake up and fill up, and they will find that the price of gas is over $4 a gallon. Is it within the purview of the government to bring those prices down, or are we looking at the new normal?"
- Mr. President, could you address—because we did finally get to gas prices here—could you address what the governor said, which is: If your energy policy was working, the price of gasoline would not be $4 a gallon here. Is that true?"
- "I want to ask you something, Mr. President, and then have the governor just quickly. Your secretary of state, as I'm sure you know, has said that she takes full responsibility for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Does the buck stop with your secretary of state as far as what went on here?"
The first, second and third interjections focus on the conditions Romney has been hammering Obama on, the long-term unemployed and high gas prices. In the first, she brings in new information reiterating how bad the employment situation is; in the second she challenges Obama on gas prices, and in the third she repeats Romney's attack on Obama. In the fourth case, she focuses the Libya question on the who-knew-what-and-when that Republicans are working so hard to use to turn this into a scandal.
All right, so that's a lot of parsing. But it shows two things. First, when you actually go through everything that happened in this debate, there's just no honest way to argue that Candy Crowley was biased in Barack Obama's favor. And second, it's understandable that partisans would have an initial, impressionistic interpretation that things were unfair to them. It's a variant of what's called the Hostile Media Effect (I discussed it here), in which people interpret news coverage that's favorable to their side as accurate and fair, and coverage unfavorable to their side as unfair and motivated by bias. It's understandable, but it's not necessarily true.