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The Candidates Underperformed, Not Matt Lauer

The Candidates Underperformed, Not Matt Lauer

MSNBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum on Wednesday night was revealing, more so than the subsequent commentary seems to acknowledge.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s allies have generated a howl of protest, claiming falsely that Matt Lauer failed as moderator and, in particular, that he was biased against Clinton.

Quite the contrary. Given the extremely artificial constraints of the forum, Lauer was remarkably successful at getting the candidates to cover issues in ways that would most interest veterans, which was the focus audience.

Moreover, he was admirably even-handed in managing the candidates. The differences that did emerge were due to the differences inherent in the candidates, not to differential treatment by Lauer.

Lauer is not getting enough credit for what he did well:

He asked about familiar topics in a fresh way that captured well how the veteran audience might see things.

He asked Clinton about the email server, but by directly linking it to the concerns about double-standards: Why should she get away with behavior that would have been a career-killer for anyone else in that room? If you have talked to anyone in the national security business since this story broke, you will understand that this is the aspect that particularly gnaws at them. It is quite surprising that Clinton is still struggling with speaking about this issue candidly this late in the campaign.

He asked Clinton about the 2002 Iraq vote, a question choice I initially thought was a mistake because she has rehearsed an answer to that question and I assumed it would not yield any fresh insight. But he asked her, ever so gently, to discuss this issue in front of those who risked their life for this decision. Perhaps I am giving him too much credit, but I thought it was framed with particular subtlety because it admitted of a fact that the conventional wisdom misses: Many who served in Iraq do not think their mission was a mistake or that they served in vain — at least they did not think that until they saw the hard-won gains evaporate in 2014. Clinton is practiced at answering the question before an audience of braying anti-war protestors. It is a much harder thing to answer that question before a veteran audience, some of whom thought the bigger mistake was Clinton’s opposition to the surge, which rescued the Iraq war from defeat. Even so, Clinton was able to turn the question to her advantage, drawing a very favorable contrast between her owning up to her position on Iraq versus Republican candidate Donald Trump’s continued failure to do so and continued dissembling on the matter.

He asked Trump to talk about the temperament issue, emphasizing not the words of Trump’s critics — which Trump is practiced in deflecting — but Trump’s own words. Trump had no good answer.

He asked Trump about his intelligence briefings in a clever way that got Trump to make one of his most damaging and revealing statements of the night: claiming that the intelligence briefers recommended a policy that President Barack Obama had refused. This exposed Trump as both careless with the limited classified material he has seen and ignorant of how careful intelligence briefers are not to give the impression they are recommending policy. Trump’s debilities in this area are a standard talking point of the Clinton campaign, and Lauer was able to demonstrate that in a fresh way. 

Lauer’s questions exposed the candidates weaknesses, and without the kind of in-your-face provocations that turn the moderator into the story.

What started out like a softball — “nobody would expect you to have taken over the last 20 years really deep dives into some of these issues…” — turned into a high, hard fastball aimed directly at the chin: “But I’m curious about what your doing now. What kind of research are you doing now?” Trump had no satisfactory answer. This, of course, comes quite close to the heart of the matter for national security professionals. To those of us who care about policy, the problem is not just that Trump started from a low base of knowledge. The problem is that he does not realize how low his base is and has done nothing to address the problem. I pointed out this problem last fall, and we are well past the acute phase of it now. Amazingly, the New York Times “expert” totally missed how Lauer’s deft question exposed Trump’s deficiency.

Lauer’s ever-so-gentle and respectful pressing of Clinton quickly evoked a defensive tone from her. This has been her challenge from the beginning and is part of the reason why her campaign is so careful to shield her from tough press questioning.

Without much pressing at all, Lauer got Trump to go even further in his outrageous embrace of Putin. This likely will be the theme out of this event that will most hurt Trump in the long run.

Lauer was relatively even-handed in not fact-checking either team.

Trump told more whoppers, so “got away with it” more often. But Clinton’s whoppers were more damaging to her brand, and so “got away with it” more consequentially. Clinton’s campaign is premised on her being the best-prepared candidate ever and her opponent being utterly unfit for the job. That sets up a double-standard of her own devising: Trump can make lots of mistakes and still beat expectations whereas her mistakes and untruths undermine the foundation of her case.

Lauer did not call Clinton on her obviously false claim that emails cannot be considered classified if they do not contain formal classification markings.

Lauer did not call Clinton on her boneheaded claim that we would not need to deploy ground troops in the counter-Islamic State fight even though we already have ground troops in the counter-Islamic State fight.

Lauer did not call Clinton on her failure to admit that she inherited a robust multilateral coalition and sanctions regime against Iran and so cannot be credited with creating it.

Lauer did call Trump on his claim that he knew more about the Islamic State than the generals.

Lauer did call Trump on his claim that he had a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State.

Lauer did call Trump on his claim that we should have seized Iraqi oil.

* * *

I am willing to make one concession to the Lauer critics. Trump’s bogus claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning has been so thoroughly debunked that Lauer could have easily flagged that and should have done so.

But I do not think moderators should be quick on the trigger to fact-check candidates in these fora in real time. CNN’s Candy Crowley memorably tried to do that in 2012 and got it flat-out wrong. She sided with Obama over Republican candidate Mitt Romney even though the facts were squarely with Romney. The damage to Romney was grossly unfair and could not be undone. There are plenty of fact-checkers already going after the candidates, and frankly, in these settings that is the job of the campaigns.

Setting aside style, the event confirmed what we already know on substance. Clinton is by far the more knowledgeable candidate. As her answer on veteran’s health issues showed, she really understands complex issues. At no point did she give the impression that she was out of her depth.

Conversely, at no point did Trump give the impression that he really understood the issue he was discussing. Trump has not grown as a candidate and gives no evidence of having learned from previous mistakes. He is wedded to ideas that are so bad (we should have left sizable forces behind to seize Iraqi oil) no serious foreign policy expert would defend them.

While Trump may have done a bit less damage to himself than Clinton did, it is only because he has the benefit of such low expectations — and the benefit that he is running against a deeply unpopular opponent. No fair-minded viewer watching that event would conclude that Trump has a better command of the issues. But perhaps some who are looking for an excuse to hold their nose and vote for him saw no reason to abandon that quest. It is up to the Clinton campaign to fix that.

Democrats are so used to receiving preferential treatment from the media that when they experience something like even-handedness, it greatly disturbs them. That is their problem, not the problem of even-handed moderators.

It was not a perfect performance by Lauer, but it compares very favorably with how other moderators have handled similar assignments. He doesn’t need to engage in any agonizing self-appraisals. The campaigns, on the other hand, do.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images