It turns out that working the refs is an effective strategy. Hillary Clinton glided through the first of the season’s three presidential debates on Monday night, thanks in no small part to moderator Lester Holt, who spent pretty much the entirety of his evening clearing Secretary Clinton’s way.
If Holt didn’t rappel into the debate Candy Crowley–style, it was because he didn’t need to. Antagonistic questions were directed toward one candidate and one candidate only. Donald Trump was asked about his tax returns, his role in promoting the birther controversy, whether he flip-flopped on the Iraq War, and what he meant when he said recently that Clinton does not have a “presidential look.” Clinton, by contrast, was not asked about her private e-mail server, the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, or any one of the many topics about which voters have rightly expressed concerns. Instead, she was asked open-ended policy questions and permitted to dilate about renewable energy and the sundry misdeeds of George W. Bush.
The institutional slant of the media being what it is, the Republican nominee is always at a disadvantage when it comes to debate moderators, and should prepare accordingly. It was clear from his performance last night that Trump did not adequately prepare for what were entirely predictable lines of questioning; he also missed several opportunities to go on the offensive against a uniquely vulnerable opponent. Nonetheless, it’s not the job of the moderator to give either candidate a leg up; in fact, it’s the moderator’s job to do the opposite.
Unfortunately, Holt’s performance is the result of growing pressures in liberal media and political circles to treat Donald Trump as a candidate beyond the pale of public life, to deny him legitimacy as a presidential contender. We have our criticisms of Donald Trump, too. But his electoral fate should be up to the voters, not Lester Holt and his colleagues.