DENVER -- Apparently, Jim Lehrer thinks the best moderator is no moderator at all.
Of course, considering Wednesday night's first presidential debate was the 12th presidential or vice presidential debate Lehrer has moderated since 1988, it's likely that he knew most of his efforts to move the candidates off their talking points were going to fail. Which might be why, fairly quickly in, he seemed to give up.
He asked President Obama and Romney to stick to the questions asked. They didn't. He asked Romney, after the first statement, to ask President Obama a direct question. He didn't. He objected to Mitt Romney taking the last word on the first question. He took it anyway. He told President Obama his time was up. He took more time.
He asked them both, at the start, to stick to the limits set. And then he, and they, acted as if the limits didn't exist.
Clearly, Lehrer lost control, early and often. But just as clearly, he had a goal beyond presiding over a tightly structured debate -- which was to stay out of the way as much as possible and make the candidates run the debate themselves. And for better or worse, that goal he largely achieved.
"We're way over our first 15 minutes," Lehrer said at around the 20-minute mark, as the men continued to talk around the first question -- which was supposed to be about jobs and moved on to taxes and the budget before cycling back, sort of, to jobs. That was all right, Lehrer said, because the discussion was still about the economy. It just wasn't about that part of the economy he had asked them to discuss.
Of course, you could forgive the candidates and viewers alike for forgetting exactly what Lehrer's vague, open-ended question was from segment to segment -- which is what happens when the moderator seems to float with the tide. As a drinking game, you could count how many times one of the candidates talked over Lehrer, or how often Lehrer was reduced to sputtering "but" or "OK" or "no, no, no." Or you could just count how many times Lehrer asked Romney if he supported vouchers for Medicare before he seemed to just give up on getting an answer.
To be fair, the format put Lehrer in an almost impossible situation. If you give the candidates free rein, as he pretty much did, you end up with a debate that wanders, sometimes incomprehensibly, from surface point to surface point. If you step in too often, you risk grabbing the focus at an event that is supposed to be centered on the two candidates -- and you get slammed as biased by whichever candidate suffers under your tighter control.
Still, some control might have been nice. Perhaps Lehrer can keep that in mind if a 13th debate comes his way.