Jay Rosen explains the dynamic that creates ‘ungovernable’ debates:

The debates in their current form are a temporary alliance among three players: the campaigns of the major-party candidates for president, the Commission on Presidential Debates and the journalists who are chosen to moderate and maintain order. Each draws power from a different source. The campaigns are the exclusive agents for the two main characters in the drama; without them there is nothing. The commission represents in institutional form the expectation Americans voters now have that the nominees for president will meet face to face and argue their respective cases. This is a potent force. It’s virtually impossible for the candidates to refuse, although nothing in election law prevents it. The journalists who moderate have power because once the cameras come on and the debate begins, no one is telling them what to say.

Each player is also weak, in its way. The campaigns are weak because of the inherent risk in submitting to questions on live television before an audience of 50 to 60 million. No matter how hard the candidates prepare, there is no way to prevent something unexpected from happening. And the risk of catastrophic failure is real, as Texas governor Rick Perry learned during the primary season. Yet they have to participate.

The commission’s weakness is structural: it has no constitutional or statutory right to put on the debates and no base of power independent of the two major parties, which created it in 1987. The moderators are weak because no one elected them, everyone can criticize them, and they’re supposed to be completely upstaged by the candidates. “It’s not about the moderator!” is something on which everyone agrees. This constrains their every move. But not completely.

The result is that no one is fully in charge of Tuesday night’s debate.

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Jay Rosen

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