About the best thing that can be said about Monday’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., is that it’s the last one. In theory, debates should represent a terrific opportunity for voters to assess the competing arguments and policies of presidential candidates. It’s a nice theory, but that’s not what we were presented with Tuesday night, nor in the first debate. What I heard, over and over again, was a lot of barking: One candidate barks out statistics or obscure references to his opponent’s record or statements, followed by return barking to the effect that it’s all a pack of lies. Sometimes they even bark over each other, such as the embarrassing exchange Tuesday between President Obama and Mitt Romney over whether oil drilling on public lands had increased or decreased during Obama’s tenure.
Was anyone edified by this? I doubt it. Republicans came away sure that Romney was telling the truth, Democrats equally certain that Obama was the honest one, and undecided voters were most likely pondering a move to Canada.
But then, there was one moment of clarity Tuesday. When Obama was defending his response to the slaying of U.S. Embassy personnel in Libya, he said he had referred to the killings as an “act of terror” in a Rose Garden speech the following day. Romney, whose research team apparently failed him this time around, barked back that Obama hadn’t called it an act of terror until 14 days after the event. “Get the transcript,” Obama replied, after which moderator Candy Crowley unexpectedly (and very unusually for a debate moderator) pointed out that Obama had, in fact, referred to the incident as an act of terror in his Rose Garden speech.
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Conservative pundits were furious about Crowley’s intervention, with some even suggesting that the whole thing had been prearranged in a conspiracy between Crowley and the Obama campaign. But if instant fact-checking at debates is scandalous, let’s have more of it. In fact, let’s borrow a page from the NFL and have Fact Review Timeouts.
Silver-haired Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday’s debate in Boca Raton, Fla., would look good in a black-and-white-striped polo shirt; put a weighted yellow flag in his pocket and he’s good to go. Nobody could expect Schieffer to pull off real-time fact checking of every competing claim, but that’s why you have a panel of Internet jockeys off stage with their hands poised over the keyboard. All Schieffer has to do, when Romney starts barking about how oil drilling on public lands has fallen by 14% and Obama whimpers back that it’s actually higher than ever, is throw the flag for a Review Timeout, the way NFL refs do when there’s a controversial call on the field. The Internet jockeys jump to the Energy Information Agency website and find out that drilling was down 14% between 2010 and 2011 but that it’s up 10.6% since Obama took office. The ruling on the field: Cherry-picking statistics. Offsetting penalties, the candidates get off with a warning.
Yes, I realize this is a football fantasy; the last thing either campaign wants is an independent real-time review pointing out when their man is lying or manipulating facts to suit his purpose.
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Monday’s contest at Lynn University will be a discussion of foreign policy, on such topics as America’s role in the world, the Afghan war, Iranian nukes, terrorism and China. Devoid of checks, balances or context, we’ll hear Romney flog away about Obama’s “apology tour” (a conservative fantasy about Obama’s early foreign-policy speeches so disingenuous that Politifact has labeled it a “Pants on Fire” lie) and Obama accuses Romney of hypocrisy for talking tough on China while investing his money in a blind trust with substantial investments there (even though Obama’s retirement investments also include Chinese companies). Viewers will be none the wiser about whom to believe, except the few who examine media fact-checking sites the next day.
Ugh. Is “Monday Night Football” on this week?