Elaine Quijano Didn't Lose The Vice Presidential Debate — No One Could Have Controlled The Candidates

Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate was a mess of interruptions, lies, and gaslighting, the blame for most of which can be laid squarely at the feet of the two VP nominees, Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine. Still, many in the pundit-class called out the moderator of the debate, CBSN anchor and CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano, for her performance as debate moderator, claiming she “lost the debate.” But for any spectator of this election cycle, with all of its unprecedented lack of decorum, I counter charges against Quijano’s moderation by asking: who could have controlled the two potential veeps?

Part of the problem for Quijano is that the debate relies on a format that is outdated for this election. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the debates, sets the rules and selects the moderators, most likely made its rules with the understanding that the participants would for the most part conduct themselves with some amount of propriety. But as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump showed during the first debate between him and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, statesmanship has long been thrown out the window.

Still, somehow the uncivilized clash between the two nominees was blamed on Quijano’s moderation. Several people called out Quijano’s interruptions of the squabbling candidates, sometimes moving on to the next question when “significant exchanges were happening.” There were several moments where she simply spoke over (or under, depending on your perspective) the candidates, who would often stray way off topic in order to jab at the opposition’s presidential nominee.

Veteran CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer seemed to have the most pragmatic takeaway on Quijano’s performance when he said that the CPD should have given the moderator a “whip and a chair.” Though his comment was made as a joke, it does raise the question of how anyone could have reined in the cross-talking candidates. There seems to be some idea that moderators of sufficient gravitas and force would somehow be able to corral the manners of politicos in the age of Trump. Lester Holt wasn't able to exert much more control over Clinton and Trump during the first presidential debate, yet Holt mostly received praise for his performance.

So, what could Quijano have done differently? To my mind, we have to look for an answer in the same place that arguably gave rise to Trump in the first place: the alt-right’s home on cable news, Bill O’Reilly. The notoriously inflammatory pundit developed a reputation for cutting the mic of guests on his radio and television shows who wouldn’t yield to the bombastic host. The political media culture that O’Reilly is at least partly responsible for — and that has permeated both sides of the aisle — has finally reached full saturation, infecting even what had been one of the last bastions of relative civility. It’s an environment where the ability to speak over your opponent is valued more highly than being correct.

If we were really interested in moderators being able to control these debates, we’d give them microphone switches. Instead, we seem to content ourselves with epic cross-talk that passes for political dialogue.