If Tuesday night's presidential debate proved nothing else, it demonstrated one thing: CNN's Candy Crowley is definitely not an "uncommitted voter." The moderator's handling of the town-hall debate at Hofstra University was heavy-handed and one-sided throughout, not merely giving more time to President Obama, but repeatedly cutting off Mitt Romney when the Republican attempted to counter accusations from the president.
At one point, after Obama had repeated his campaign accusation that Romney "said we should let Detroit go bankrupt," Romney devoted part of his next reponse to rebutting the mischaracterization: "My plan was to have [auto companies] go through bankruptcy like 7-Eleven did and Macy's and Continental Airlines and come out stronger. And I know he keeps saying, you want to take Detroit bankrupt. Well, the president took Detroit bankrupt. You took General Motors bankrupt. You took Chrysler bankrupt. So when you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did." The process of bankruptcy was necessary, Romney said, "to get those companies back on their feet, so they could start hiring more people. That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened."
Then Crowley said, "Let me give the president a chance," providing Obama an opportunity to reiterate and expand his attacks on Romney. "Candy, what Governor Romney said just isn't true," the president began, claiming that if Romney's advice had been followed "we would have lost a million jobs," and ridiculing the Republican's economic proposals: "Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That's been his philosophy in the private sector, that's been his philosophy as governor, that's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate."
Obama had just called Romney a liar, and Romney was eager to answer, but Crowley intervened: "Governor Romney -- there'll be plenty of chances here to go on… you certainly will have lots of time here coming up." Preventing Romney from immediately replying to Obama's charges, Crowley then went to the next town-hall questioner, who asked about energy policy.
This was just one of Crowley's interventions that seemed intended to benefit Obama, but she saved her worst for last when, as Matthew Sheffield of Newsbusters said, Crowley "disgraced herself … showing why many Americans were rightfully suspicious of her ability to moderate a presidential debate fairly." A man named Kerry Ladka had asked a very specific question about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya: "Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?" Obama dodged the question, not even pretending to try to answer Ladka. When Romney had his turn, he criticized the president for attending a Las Vegas fundraiser the day after the Libyan attack and questioned the administration's shifting explanations of what happened at Benghazi."It was very clear this was not a demonstration," Romney said. "This was an attack by terrorists."
Obama was given a chance to reply and did so indignantly: "The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime.… And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive." Romney immediately questioned that: "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? … I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."
Now Crowley intervened: "He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take -- it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that."
Romney had actually mishandled the issue, but Crowley's intervention spawned a controversy of its own that is likely to dominate news coverage of the debate for the next couple of days. The full text of the President Obama's Rose Garden speech shows that he included in his remarks a statement apparently referring to the obscure YouTube video that the administration wrongly suggested had inspired the Libyan attack: "We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." The president then made reference to the 9/11 attacks of 2001 before saying, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
So, the phrase "acts of terror" did indeed occur in the president's speech on Sept. 12, but it wasn't clear whether he meant this to apply to the previous day's Benghazi assault, which officials in his administration were then describing as a spontaneous demonstration against the YouTube video. And, as Romney pointed out during the debate, Obama himself mentioned the YouTube video six times during his Sept. 25 speech to the United Nations, even though it was already becoming clear by then that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the video.
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday night's debate, the liberals on MSNBC gave enthusiastic praise to both Obama's performance and Crowley's handling of the debate. Rachel Maddow said the president had given the best debate showing of his entire political career, Ed Schultz said Obama was "stellar" and Chris Matthews was so ecstatic that, as I said on Twitter, he was "wetting his pants in joy, gibbering like a meth freak on laughing gas." Obama's feisty performance had redeemed him in the eyes of Democrat partisans who had been so profoundly discouraged by his anemic appearance in the first debate. (See "Mitt's Biggest Turnaround Yet," Oct. 4.) A CNN poll found that viewers scored the debate a narrow win for Obama, by a 46-39 margin, while a CBS poll of "uncommitted voters" that found Obama also won (37-33) in the overall debate also found that on the key issue of the economy, Romney won by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
Yet Crowley's intervention on the Libya question, which seemed an effort to help Obama, may have actually worsened the president's larger problem. Crowley herself admitted in a CNN post-debate interview that Romney "was right in the main" in his criticism of Obama's handling of the Benghazi attack. Meanwhile, on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer said that Crowley's "incorrect and unfair" intervention had "contaminated" the debate. By highlighting the Libyan issue and adding a new element of controversy, however, Crowley inadvertently ensured that the administration's failure in Benghazi will be the focus of post-debate news coverage -- which is unlikely to improve Obama's re-election chances. The facts of the Libyan debacle simply are not in the president's favor, and the final debate -- Monday at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida -- is specifically devoted to foreign policy. The venerable Bob Schieffer of CBS News will host that debate, and is unlikely to repeat Crowley's mistakes, which are sure to be a topic of intense controversy over the next several days.