The Moderator That Didn’t Moderate

In the final hours before each of the three presidential debates I have watched as Steve Scully reviewed notes, responded to emails, and generally prepared for the big event. He wasn’t preparing to cover the debates like the hundreds of other journalists who were gathered in each of the media filing centers. He was actually preparing to moderate the debate.

Steve Scully has not moderated any of the debates this year… but he was ready to step in if called upon. He was ready when Lester Holt moderated the first presidential debate at Hofstra. He was ready when Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz co-moderated the town hall debate at Washington University. He was ready when Elaine Quijano moderated the VP debate at Longwood University. And, he is ready today, in case something unforeseen happens over the next few hours and Chris Wallace, who is scheduled to moderate the third and final presidential debate at UNLV, is unable to fulfill his duties.

Steve Scully is C-SPAN’s Political Editor and host of “Washington Journal” — and he is the presidential debate moderator equivalent of the designated survivor.

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Before I go any further, I have to admit something: I am a total C-SPAN nerd. I turn on C-SPAN to watch the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, the State of the Union, the Democratic and Republican Conventions and more. C-SPAN is the only network that broadcasts what is happening in the House and Senate chambers — so, for example, when Democrats in the Senate filibustered this past June, I stayed tuned to C-SPAN all night, waking up every few hours to see what was happening. They turn the cameras on before and keep them rolling well after an event has ended, allowing me to see what is happening before and after events, when other news channels are pushing commentary, or have resumed normal programming.

And then there is Washington Journal… the greatest public affairs interview show of them all. I don’t know is my favorite part — the reading of news clips on the air, the interviews with policy experts and knowledgeable operatives that explore issues and topics at a deeper level than any other program, the questions and comments from people calling in from across the country — there is so much to love. I have never been a guest on Washington Journal, but it is on my bucket list. I did call in many years ago to ask a question on the air — unfortunately the segment ended before I made it to the front of the queue.

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I have been secretly wishing that Steve Scully would get the call to moderate one of the debates — not because I wish anything bad will happen to the other moderators, but because I think his approach, and more generally the C-SPAN sensibility would add a lot to the political discussion. I have only met Steve Scully once, when we went through a security checkpoint at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia at the same time this past summer and I bent his ear for a few minutes while we walked towards the giant tent where all the media workspaces were setup. As a journalist, he is disciplined, thorough and relentless. In person, he is exactly like he appears on television: thoughtful, soft-spoken, curious and obviously passionate about all aspects of politics.

Earlier today I re-introduced myself to Steve Scully and asked about his role as backup moderator. He told me he prepared just like the other moderators have done. He assembled a team of people to help research major issues, review past debate transcripts as well as statements and policy proposals of this year’s candidates. He reached out to past debate moderators like Bob Schieffer and Jim Lehrer to ask for input. And, he poured over all the same materials the Commission on Presidential Debates had made available to the other moderators for their preparations.

When the planning process started, Scully told me his team flagged nine issues to consider for possible debate topics. By the end of the of their planning time, they had crafted questions around eighteen different issues (not counting the issues surrounding the Wikileaks disclosures and the Access Hollywood tape). I asked him if the list of issues prioritized anything that would specifically interest or concern young voters. He said he wanted to ask about two issues in particular: student loans (and how Hillary Clinton plans to make college free for everyone), and the future of entitlement programs like Social Security (since the millennial generation would be most impacted by the shortfall in funding that is projected a few decades into the future).

He also told me that he had tried to craft questions so that it would be difficult for the candidates to respond with canned talking points. For example, if he had asked about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, his question would have started by acknowledging that Secretary Clinton had already apologized and accepted responsibility — and then pressed her for additional details on what she would do to rebuild trust, or prevent other similar problems from happening. The option for her to answer the question by apologizing, and not get to anything else, would have been off the table.

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him what impact he thought the tone of the previous debate discussions might have on tonight’s viewership. He thinks people generally would prefer more discussion of the issues — something I agree with wholeheartedly — and used the example of his wife, who he described as “politically interested,” and how she had turned off the VP debate after the first half hour because she felt neither Tim Kaine nor Mike Pence were actually addressing the issues. “I’ll be interested to see what happens after the first 30 minutes of tonight’s debate,” he told me — and whether people will change the channel.

Nobody knows for sure what will happen tonight, or what might have gone differently if Steve Scully had been the one asking questions of the candidates during any of the debates this cycle. Maybe he will get asked to moderate a presidential debate next cycle — and if/when he does, you can bet I will be watching it on C-SPAN.