When CBS’s longtime Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer sits down in Boca Raton, Florida, tonight to moderate the final 2012 presidential debate, he’ll be following three journalists who became targets for criticism over how they handled their moderating duties.
Upset liberals scorned PBS’s Jim Lehrer for taking a hands-off approach in the first debate on October 3, with MSNBC analyst Howard Fineman slamming him as “practically useless ” for not jumping into the debate on behalf of President Obama.
Such criticism may have encouraged the activist approach taken by ABC’s Martha Raddatz  in the vice presidential debate October 11, and by CNN’s Candy Crowley  in the October 16 town hall debate, as both of those journalists repeatedly interrupted the Republican candidate and larded the discussion with a predominantly liberal agenda.
So will Schieffer please liberals and infuriate conservatives by adopting the Raddatz-Crowley strategy? Or will he upset media partisans like Fineman by leaving the actual debating to Romney and Obama?
He surely won’t jump in as an activist conservative moderator. A review of the record shows Schieffer has tilted left in his previous visits to the presidential debate stage, and his approach as a CBS correspondent and anchor is that of a conventional establishment liberal:
■ Moderating one of the 2004 presidential debates between President George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry, Schieffer offered up nine liberal or anti-Bush questions, vs. only three conservative or anti-Kerry quotes, a three-to-one skew . (Eight other questions were ideologically neutral.)
For example, at one point he opened the door for Kerry to champion a standard liberal cause: “Senator Kerry, the gap between rich and poor is growing wider. More people are dropping into poverty. Yet the minimum wage has been stuck at, what, $5.15 an hour now for about seven years. Is it time to raise it?”
Later, he hit President Bush from the left : “Mr. President,...you said that if Congress would vote to extend the ban on assault weapons, that you’d sign the legislation. But you did nothing to encourage the Congress to extend it. Why not?”
■ Moderating a debate in 2008, Schieffer took a more subdued approach with few ideological questions. At one point, he sounded downright conservative, asking both John McCain and Barack Obama about how their proposals would boost the deficit by “more than $200 billion,” a figure that seems quaint in retrospect.
Schieffer actually proposed less federal spending: “Aren’t you both ignoring reality? Won’t some of the programs you are proposing have to be trimmed, postponed, even eliminated?”
But later in the same debate, Schieffer invited Obama to push for even greater spending on education: “Do you think the federal government should play a larger role in the schools and, I mean, more federal money?”
■ In covering the 2012 campaign so far, Schieffer has frequently framed the issues in ways that support conventional liberal thinking. On the February 26, 2012 Face the Nation, he promoted the typical media critique about conservatives ruining the Republican Party, asking New Jersey’s Chris Christie: “Do you think Rick Santorum and, well, the candidates in general, are pushing your party too far to the right to make the nomination worth anything when you get to November?”
Then on May 6, he similarly asked columnist Peggy Noonan: “Do you think that the Republican Party has moved too far right for its own good?”
On April 1, he distorted the issue of the Obama administration’s mandates on Catholic institutions, asking guest Newt Gingrich: “Do you think it’s good politics, though, for Republicans to be sort of campaigning against birth control?”
And, after Paul Ryan was named to the GOP ticket, Schieffer went on CBS This Morning (August 13) to brand Romney’s new running mate a budget slasher: “He really slashes into social programs — I mean, it’s across the board.” In reality, Ryan’s House GOP budget would substantially increase federal spending over the next ten years, just not as radically as President Obama’s budget.
■ During the budget battles of 2011, Schieffer reliably championed tax increases as a way to solve the problem created by President Obama’s ramped-up spending. Schieffer scolded Paul Ryan on Face the Nation back on April 17, 2011, and misrepresented as a “tax cut” the plan of keeping tax rates unchanged: “Why do these rich people need another tax cut? I mean, they’re already rich. They seem to be doing pretty well as it is now. Why cut their taxes some more?”
Later that summer, he cast Republicans as intransigent, lecturing Senator Marco Rubio on July 17, 2011: “Where are the concessions that the Republicans are willing to make? I heard the President, just this week, saying, yeah, he’d be willing to talk about means-testing for people on Medicare. I don’t hear any concessions from people on the other side. They just say no taxes, and that’s their negotiating posture....Can you have meaningful reform here without increasing revenues in some way?”
Two weeks later, Schieffer belittled conservatives as irresponsible teenagers, lecturing Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell: “Some people say that the Republican Party has been held hostage by the Tea Party. One of our Facebook followers sent in an interesting analogy and said, ‘Why are Republicans allowing freshman congressmen to control this debate?’ and this person said, ‘It’s like letting the teenager in the family run the family budget.’ I mean, there’s some truth in that.”
■ In 2010, when the Tea Party peacefully protested on Capitol Hill during the final ObamaCare debate, Schieffer pushed the false narrative of liberals. Opening the March 21, 2010 Face the Nation, Schieffer claimed: “A year-long debate that’s been rancorous and mean from the start turned even nastier yesterday....[Demonstrators] hurled racial epithets, even at civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia....One lawmaker said it was like a page out of a time machine.”
As the campaign that year wore on, Schieffer mocked Tea Party candidates as “extreme” and “an exotic crew.” (August 29, 2010 Face the Nation.) Six weeks before Election Day, Schieffer went on the CBS Evening News to suggest that the GOP had jeopardized their chances by nominating such extreme candidates.
“It is very much like 1964,” Schieffer argued. “They threw out all the establishment candidates, they threw out their party leaders and they nominated Barry Goldwater who — fine man — but he was far to the right of most of the people in his party, and they lost in a landslide. And that’s why you have establishment Republicans worried about what’s going to happen now in November.”
On Election Day, the GOP won in a landslide, picking up 63 House seats, 5 Senate seats, and 6 governorships. So much for Schieffer’s political insight that conservatism is a turn-off.
■ In 2009, Schieffer was awed by the sight of Barack Obama on Inauguration Day. On the January 23, 2009 CBS Evening News, Schieffer fawned: “With the severity of the problems he faced, no human, no matter how confident, it seems to me, could look out on that crowd and not wonder: ‘Can I live up to the expectations of all those people?’ Yet, in the three days since then, he has laid out an ambitious program, promises of more transparency in government, new walls between the government and special interests by executive order. He will close Guantanamo prison and outlaw torture. He has told the world that we will practice what we preach.”
He was equally giddy when Obama picked liberal Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court that May, cooing during live coverage on May 26, 2009: “This woman has a life story that you couldn’t make up! I mean, you know, she’s born in the public projects, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, a single parent household, she goes to a Catholic school, she gets scholarships to the best schools in the country, Princeton and Yale, she overcomes all that while dealing with diabetes all her life, and she is Hispanic....This was the political advisor’s dream candidate.”
But Schieffer was scornful of those who criticized Obama’s radical policies, commiserating with the President on Face the Nation, September 20, 2009: “It seems to me that there is a sort of meanness that’s settled over our political dialogue. It started this summer at these town hall meetings....President Carter is now saying that he thinks it’s racial. Nancy Pelosi says it could be dangerous. What do you think it’s all about?”
Schieffer’s bias, like his career, goes back decades. Right now, it’s up to him how he approaches tonight’s debate: He can choose to be a neutral moderator, like Jim Lehrer did at the first debate, and let the candidates mix it up if they wish. Or he can choose the path of Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley, and step into the fray as a participant.