As he warmed up the audience in the moments before the beginning of Wednesday night’s debate, Jim Lehrer worried aloud about the test ahead.
“I’ve got to be really concentrating,” he said.
His PBS sidekick, columnist David Brooks, worried too. The free-form format, agreed on by the two campaigns, would be “much more demanding on Jim,” Brooks said.
They were right to fret.
Throughout the 90-minute clash the 78-year-old Lehrer, a veteran of 12 presidential debates, played a thoroughly passive role. He didn’t challenge facts or assertions, or ask piercing or detailed questions. He looked flummoxed when the candidates ignored his efforts to impose order.
“OK … but....” Lehrer sputtered.
And Romney, in particular, exploited Lehrer’s passivity.
“No,” Romney said, waving off the newsman’s efforts to keep things on track. “I have to respond.”
Romney dodged and darted, taking full advantage of Lehrer’s reluctance to check him -- and of President Obama’s own sluggish performance.
Like Alec Guinness as the British colonel in the motion picture The Bridge On the River Kwai, Lehrer got trapped by his plan to march through a series of “pods” on various issues -- paying too much attention to the structure, and too little to the reason they were there. By the end of the debate, he apologized for not keeping things on schedule.
“That’s a terrific segue to our next segment,” he told Romney at one point, ignoring the substance of the candidate’s answer, pleased to move on to the next pod on his list.
Lehrer’s restraint was a far cry from the active, dynamic performance that NBC’s David Gregory gave earlier this week, holding the candidates’ feet to the fire as the moderator in the Massachusetts Senate debate between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren.
For Romney’s fans, curious voters, and political junkies who have yearned over the years for more unstructured brawls between candidates, the result was an enlightening treat. With no one to stop him, the Republican candidate launched salvo after salvo.
When Obama tried to parry, and position the election as a choice of two different approaches, Romney exploited Lehrer’s light hand -- taking all the time he needed to rebuff the president’s reasoned attacks.
With Lehrer’s help, and for the first time since clinching the GOP nomination, Romney made the debate -- and at least for now the campaign – a referendum on Obama’s record.