The Debates: One snoozer, one loser

by Jim Longworth

The first of several gubernatorial debates was broadcast from Chapel Hill last week, which, as it turns out, also served as a warm-up bout for the first presidential debate of the season. That means viewers throughout North Carolina were treated to nearly four hours of counterpunching podium talk in one night.

The gubernatorial debate between Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, turned out to be a snoozefest, mainly because of the format. UNC-TV’s smileyface moderator Shannon Vickery was joined by three TV anchors from around the state: Cameron Kent (WXII in Winston- Salem), Dave Jordan (WITN New Bern) and Dave Wagner (WCNC Charlotte). Predictable questions were selected from a survey of members by the Radio and Television Digital News Association of the Carolinas, an organization which means nothing to anyone except the RTDNA.

As with every other Triangle-based debate in modern memory, this one was tightly structured, and limited the candidates to brief talking points. In-depth discussions were not allowed, and anchor follow-ups were too infrequent and mostly ineffective.

For example, Jordan asked the candidates how soon jobs could be created. McCrory strayed off into bragging about the 25-year infrastructure plan he put in place while mayor of Charlotte. Jordan should have interrupted with, “Well, then why did you chastise Obama and take out of context his ‘You didn’t build that’ comment? The president was merely stating that the private sector needed infrastructure which could only be funded by the government, and that’s what you just bragged about.”

McCrory also complained that Democrats had over-regulated NC industry, yet didn’t say which regulations he had a problem with. Jordan should have pressed him on that, and reminded McCrory that it was the GOP legislature who has tried to gut environmental regulations which are essential for maintaining the health of workers as well as the general public.

Walter Dalton also dodged the question about how soon jobs could be created. One of the TV anchors should have jumped in and asked why he couldn’t implement former Democratic candidate Bill Faison’s proposal, which would activate a portion of the temporary 1 cent sales tax, and put nearly 40,000 public sector employees back to work immediately.

Absent any substantive discussion, McCrory and Dalton gave cookie-cutter answers to cookie-cutter questions. Only once did we get to see any spontaneous reactions, or a hint of character, and that was when Walter accused Pat of being insensitive to the needs of minorities. It was a low blow, but it did serve to wake up the audience momentarily.

Viewers who were so inclined then stayed tuned for a two hour debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Pundits expected Romney to screw up and Obama to dominate the exchange. Just the opposite happened. Obama came unprepared, unenthused and appeared disengaged throughout the debate. He hardly ever looked at Romney, and spent most of his time making notes and staring down at his podium. Meanwhile Romney, who is normally known as a robotic gaffe machine, kept Obama on the ropes during the entire debate.

The president missed several opportunities to bring up Bain’  Capital, and how Romney made a fortune from laying off workers and closing plants. Nor did Obama attack Mitt for his 47 percent diatribe in which the Republican candidate recently assured a crowd of rich white folks that he wasn’t concerned with Obama voters who thought they were “entitled” to food and shelter. Even worse, Obama let Romney get away with telling one lie after another, and only challenged the former Massachusetts governor on one of them — his plan for tax cuts. Romney said the deficit doubled under Obama. It didn’t. According to the New York Times, it jumped from $1.2 trillion to $1.4 trillion. Romney said Obamacare would cut $716 billion from Medicare. It won’t. According to USA Today, Obamacare would not cut any benefits to seniors. Romney said that half of all businesses who received federal loans to develop green technologies failed. Not true. According to the Washington Post, only 1.4 percent of those businesses went under. Obama should have pointed out Mitt’s prevarications, but he didn’t. The result? Sixty-seven percent of registered voters thought Romney won the debate, while only 25 percent thought the president won.

Obama’s lackluster performance was hard to watch, but at least the debate wasn’t boring, no thanks to moderator Jim Lehrer, who was constantly frustrated with the candidates for not sticking to his anally devised, intrusive themes and the amount of time he had allotted for each.

Going forward, all debates need to be restructured so that a single moderator leads the candidates in a discussion of issues, without imposing strict time constraints on responses. Also, since most moderators are incapable of calling out canards, then debate organizers should hire a fact-checker to monitor the rhetoric. Whenever a candidate tells a fib, the fact-checker would sound a buzzer and announce the truth. Sort of like a game-show judge. The result will be less lies, and a more informed electorate.

I’m Jim Longworth, and I approved this message.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).