Once more, and one last, into the breach.
This time, for the final presidential debate, it was CBS' Bob Schieffer stepping into the role of debate moderator. While taking on that job is still an honor, in this polarized environment it's also something of a risk, as each of his predecessors became, to one degree or another, an unwilling part of the story — and left feeling some of the heat.
Luckily for debate watchers, few newscasters do a better job of deflecting heat and projecting a sort of old-school, deceptively affable cool, than Schieffer. To no one's surprise who has watched him on Face the Nation, he remained a calm and friendly presence, smiling at Governor Romney and President Obama even as he asked them his sometimes pointed questions. Where Jim Lehrer presented broad topics and allowed the candidates to run the conversation themselves, Schieffer offered a more restricted field of play.
Not that he always forced them to stay within his lines; his goal seemed to be to give the candidates leeway without allowing them to run rampant. At one point, that meant letting them wander off into a discussion of schools and the economy that seemed to be only tangentially related to foreign policy. But he eventually ended that sojourn with a rebuke, telling them to shift back to the subject because we had already heard much of what they were saying at the earlier debates.
Those hoping that Schieffer would take a less-engaged role, more in line with Lehrer than with Martha Raddatz or Candy Crowley, were no doubt disappointed — and most likely will be for the next few election cycles. Few reporters, having seen the drubbing Lehrer took for his hands-off approach, are likely to follow a similar path, though for the record the problem with Lehrer was not that he was passive, but that he was ineffectual when he tried to be active.
Schieffer did, of course, have the benefit of proximity. Like Raddatz at the vice presidential debates, Schieffer sat across from the candidates at a desk, which inevitably seems to offer easier control.
He exercised it sparingly. He directed the debate through his questions, but did not do so as a time-keeper in any objectionable way. He never corrected anyone's facts, he seldom cut anyone off — and when he did cut Romney off during the transition to a segment on Afghanistan, he did so in a way that made Romney smile as he capitulated.
Of course, the Republican candidate probably owed him one, as earlier Schieffer had allowed Romney to reject a hypothetical about an Israeli attack on Iran, recognizing perhaps that it really wasn't a particularly sensible question and wisely pulling himself back from that particular breach.
There is no one-size-fits-all rule for moderators; Raddatz and Crowley brought very different styles to the job, but were equally effective. What Schieffer proved is that a moderator could lay back without rolling over, and offer a well-run debate while doing so.
One last, and if not the best, at least reliably close.