John, thanks for your engaging response, but permit me to push back.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the debate, as executed by its moderators, did help super delegates decide which of their candidates is more electable, as you suggested. Should journalists moderating a debate really focus on asking questions that best serve the institutional needs of the Democratic Party? I don’t think so, particularly given that super delegates are privy to all sorts of polling data, the knowledge they’ve accumulated closely following politics and actual voting results in past primaries, whereas the average voter’s decision is far more influenced by these finite debate appearances.
As James Fallows put it in the piece I linked earlier:
Perhaps you’re right that fewer people would watch that sort of debate, though I’m not so sure: questions about issues that affect people’s lives need not be wonky policy questions. And I’m less sure than you are about the answer to a well-crafted War on Drugs question — it just doesn’t seem obvious to me, particularly given Obama’s haragues about the criminal justice system.
My hunch is that ABC didn’t garner 11 million debate viewers because Americans anticipated how the moderators would behave — they couldn’t know beforehand that it would be a debate unlike any that preceded it, and the negative audience reaction to the moderators suggests that their performance will turn voters off to watching in the future.
I’d finally say that the questions I posed won’t come up in a campaign, as you pointed out, but that’s largely because journalists don’t ask about them in debates, conference calls, etc. The campaigns don’t control coverage — the press is pretty good at bringing up controversies they don’t want to talk about, sometimes for good reason — but insofar as there are important policy issues that the Obama, Clinton and McCain campaigns aren’t talking about, it’s the media’s job to bring them up too. You may be right that during a general election the McCain campaign won’t hit Obama or Clinton on the topics I raised (like the Democratic Party’s reflexive, extra-constitutional anti-federalism). On the other hand, I can imagine McCain asking Obama about federal powers vis-a-vis state power sooner than he asks, “Does Reverend Wright love America as much as you do?”