[T]he legal teams for President Obama and Mitt Romney — in a rare moment of bipartisanship — have complained to the Commission on Presidential Debates regarding moderator Candy Crowley’s assertions that she plans to follow up on questions asked by the town hall audience.Yes, this is a thing now. So what's going on is that Crowley said she intends to take a rather more active role than first envisioned or planned for; in her words:
In a debate, you don’t want to go over plowed ground. […] I’m always kind of looking for the next question … So there’s opportunity for follow-up to kind of get them to drill down on the subjects that these folks want to learn about in the town hall.The campaigns expressed skepticism. More importantly, the debate commission itself expressed skepticism, because Crowley seemed to imply she would be altering the actual guidelines the debate commission set forth when preparing for the town hall—for better or for worse, those guidelines explicitly say things like "the moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates," suggesting the role of moderator in this town hall could just as well have been served by some intern, somewhere, if we were being honest about it. It then took the villager's villager, Mark Halperin, to "break the story of all this skeptical skepticism taking place, because there is nothing more goddamn interesting to the village than villagers talking about villagers, and now it's a thing. Well, a little thing, anyway.
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While my gut reaction to this is to Not Give A Flying Damn—I am not impressed by a debate moderator announcing that they intend to nix whatever rules were previously set out and just wing it, since we have not had good luck with that in the past; simultaneously, having campaigns whine about facing follow-up questions, heaven forbid, is a bit much—there's a couple things that grate. The first is the assumption by those involved that villagers will naturally be able to ask better questions about what "these folks want to learn about" than the persons themselves. I have to ask: Do we have any actual evidence of that happening? Recently?
We know what the punditry thinks the common folk are interested in, things like the manufactured "fiscal cliff" and the scary just-rediscovered deficit monster and the like, but many of us have noticed that what the villagers obsess over and what the common rabble is interested in tend to be rather different things; to hear the Sunday talk show crowd, you would think that nobody in America gives a crap about whether or not they have a job tomorrow, so devoted are they to following the minutia of Washington's latest invented slapfight. The advantage of a town hall format is that, ostensibly (these people are screened, after all, so we've already had the questions appropriately filtered to reflect what the press "thinks" ought to be asked) it is actual Americans asking actual questions that they presumably want to hear the actual answers to. Why the assumption, then, that the questions they will ask won't be the proper ones, or won't be asked the right way, or may need to be altered so as to not go over plowed ground? There is no plowed ground in this campaign, in large part because every time you ask Mitt Romney about his opinion on something, you're as likely as not to get a completely different answer from the last time you asked him. (I hear tell there's a popular video going around on that subject, perhaps that should be more widely aired.)
Now having the actual questioners be able to ask follow up questions, now that would be interesting. I would pay large sums of money to hear one actual town hall questioner be able to say thank you very much, Mr. Candidate, but I cannot help but notice that your response to me was entirely unresponsive bullshit—shall we give this another go? What grates, though, is the absolutely ironclad assumption each year that the town hall participants themselves are to politically illiterate to possibly be trusted for that job (their microphones will be turned off the instant the last syllable of their question has escaped their lips, lest they meddle further), so that we must leave it to the very same narrow set of people who already have a voice, a very, very loud and omnipresent voice, to do it for them.
Again, I think the proper response here is to not give many damns. There seems to be an undercurrent, though, in which Crowley and other pundits deem themselves more vital to the process than the town hall participants or, indeed, than the details of the actual process itself, and it grates. If we had one town hall a week from September into the elections (broadcast, say, in the place of the dead air that usually hosts John McCain (R-Sunday) and Reince Talkingpoint) just think how much more we would know about these candidates. And, simultaneously, about what politically savvy Americans are actually concerned about.