Matt Latimer: Why I Still Hate Town Hall Debates

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One of the reasons I think town-hall debates are a waste of time is that they tend to keep the candidates from engaging with each other. Neither wants to offend the audience of “regular Americans” before them—people so disinterested in the election that they claim they still can’t figure out how to vote.

That changed tonight. I have to agree with ABC’s George Will, who said this debate was the best he’d ever seen (I’ve watched them all since 1988). And indeed it was a tasty slugfest from the very first question to the “47 percent” bomb the president brilliantly, and cruelly, dropped on a wordless Mitt Romney in the final 30 seconds.

While Romney emerged the big winner last time, tonight was Obama’s turn. The president was feisty, angry, pushy and, crucially, awake. Governor Romney was shakier than last time, at times weirdly aggressive, and defensive whenever his own record was questioned. Despite this, he was mostly doing fine. That is, until moderator Candy Crowley and the president called him a liar on Libya. That one’s gonna hurt, folks.

I still think the town-hall format is the biggest travesty since the renewal of Mike and Molly. Tonight, as before, a bunch of people asked pre-cleared questions laced with their own obvious biases. One guy, for example, told the president he voted for him four years ago and then asked Obama to explain why he should get his vote again. This “uncommitted” voter, folks, is also known as a Democrat.

Another improbably claimed that he and his “brain trust” sat around yesterday talking about lax security in Libya and how it was all Obama’s fault.

Yet another questioner asked Mitt Romney if he’ll be as bad as George W. Bush was. (Gee—wonder who she’ll be voting for this year.) The question, while biased and ridiculous, did lead to the evening’s most hilarious moment—with Obama defending Bush and Romney running from him like he was a contagious skin disease.

By far the biggest loser of the debate (after my former boss, George W., that is) was Candy Crowley. She is one of the most seasoned political reporters in Washington, but she came very close to becoming a participant in the debate. At some points she almost lost control, then seemed to interrupt Romney more often than Obama. The president also was given more time to speak overall. 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. Enjoy that moment—you’ll be seeing it again and again for years.