Yes, The Debate Moderator Screwed Up. That's Life.
Conservatives are right to complain that last night's moderator favored the president. But Romney should have handled it better.
Last night, I said that Romney had an "epic fail" in the moment when he pressed Obama on whether he'd called Benghazi an act of terror in a Rose Garden speech the day after the attacks. Candy Crowley intervened to say that the president was right. I still think that Romney made a huge, unnecessary own goal by getting too aggressive. But I also think that this was an epic fail on the part of Crowley, who should not have intervened, since it turns out that the reference was somewhat ambiguous (perhaps deliberately so). I'm inclined to call this one for the president, but it's debatable, which means that Crowley should have let them, er, debate it. Once again, we've seen a media referee chivvied into presenting an opinion as a fact.
Crowley also erred gravely in being excessively deferential to the president. I noticed last night that she was interrupting Romney more aggressively than the president when he ran over time. I didn't realize just how bad the disparity was, however: Crowley allowed the president the last word on virtually every question. Conservatives are arguing that this is media bias, and there's probably some of that, though I don't think that you can discount the simple fact that Barack Obama is the president of the United States, which makes it psychologically hard to interrupt him.
Nonetheless, I can't imagine how Crowley let this happen. Yes, he's president. But how do you fail to notice that he's gotten the last word on all but one question in the first hour of the debate? Making sure that the opportunity to speak is balanced out is the most basic job that a moderator has.
I though Romney was being a bit of a jerk last night, talking over the moderator; this morning, this seems more understandable. After the outrage from progressives about Lehrer's moderation of the first debate, Raddatz and Crowley promised a more macho, interventionist style. But perhaps because the outrage came from progressives, both of them seem to have intervened more heavily against the Republican candidate. No wonder Romney was frustrated.
But that said, Romney didn't handle it well. He got too aggressive, both with the president and with the moderator. He tried to backtrack and get the last words that Crowley should have given him. This made him look a mite desperate and distinctly unpresidential. Progressives have been good at working the refs this election season. That's something the Romney campaign needs to plan for in advance, not complain about afterwards. If Romney can't keep his act together when a moderator gives the president a bit more time, how can he be expected to, say, negotiate a major treaty?
I expect the blowback from conservatives will be enough to ensure that the president does not get such an obvious advantage in the final debate--or the moderator coming in for a spontaneous "fact check". But that will be too late to do Romney much good.