The message from Hillary Clinton’s camp in the run-up to Monday night’s debate is pretty clear: Moderator Lester Holt should call Donald Trump on any lies, mistakes, or factual errors.
“It’s unfair to ask that Hillary Clinton both play traffic cop with Trump, make sure that his lies are corrected, and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people,” Robbie Mook said on ABC News’s This Week yesterday. This morning, he continued to beat the drum in an appearance on CBS: “We are concerned Trump may lie and throw misinformation out there and that Hillary will have to spend all her time trying to correct the record.”
Go find a presidential candidate who ever felt that his opponent was honest and would never lie. Every candidate who has ever stood on a debate stage believed his foe was uniquely slippery and deceitful. Every candidate wishes the moderator would instantaneously challenge his opponent’s every line, effectively handing a debate win to one candidate.
In short, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is expressly calling for Lester Holt and the other moderators to follow the trail blazed by former CNN correspondent Candy Crowley in 2012. In Republican circles, Crowley’s name is an epithet, the clearest example of a mainstream-media figure jumping on a metaphorical grenade for a Democrat since Dan Rather, because of this exchange:
ROMNEY: 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.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CROWLEY: It- it- it- . . . he did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror . . .
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He — 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 of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
Crowley’s word-salad back-tracking didn’t mitigate the damage; she declared Obama right and Romney wrong, as the president’s gloating “say that a little louder” emphasizes.
Romney was, of course, correct that the administration dragged its feet in acknowledging the obvious, muddying the waters around the coverage of Benghazi by portraying it as an out-of-control protest, as if rocket-propelled grenades were a common tool of protesters. After the debate, Crowley said of Romney, “He was right in the main, but I just think he picked the wrong word.” Of course, the audience for CNN’s post-debate programming was a tiny fraction of the audience for the actual debate.
The Clinton campaign wants last cycle’s glaring anomaly to be the new normal; thus all the sudden talk about how a moderator has to fact-check a candidate’s statements while the debate is going on and call him out on any falsehoods or inaccuracies. Matt Lauer became public enemy number one for not pressing Trump enough in a joint forum on veterans’ issues; Jimmy Fallon’s softball interview is suddenly a national “punch in the gut” for not being confrontational or hostile enough. Every figure who interviews or encounters Trump is expected to do his part to stop him and help her.
If, as a Democrat, you begin with the assumption that Hillary Clinton is a good, generally honest person, and that all Republicans are bad but Trump is particularly bad, this presidential race feels like an unending nightmare. Trump is crude and painfully ignorant of policy details, plays with racially incendiary fire, lies casually and effortlessly, offers the simplest and most unworkable solutions to complicated problems, and has lived a life of selfishness, petty vindictiveness, and greed. Since Hillary Clinton can’t seem to get Americans to understand that, Lester Holt and the other moderators must step up.
What this line of thinking fails to grasp is that quite a few Americans outside of the Democratic ranks see Hillary as more or less the same. She, too, lies casually and effortlessly. She has the more sophisticated policy positions but ignores inconvenient facts and counter-evidence. She’s unwilling to stand up to racial demagogues when they benefit her party. She’s every bit as vindictive toward those who have crossed her. Trump may celebrate his wealth in outlandishly ostentatious ways, but is he decidedly different from the woman who took every lucrative Wall Street speaking gig offered and charged public universities six-figure sums to discuss the rising cost of higher education?
Lester Holt can’t change any of that. No one can.