Raddatz, Cooper crack the whip
Martha Raddatz brought the fire and Anderson Cooper brought the whip to Sunday’s debate.
Both Raddatz, an ABC foreign-affairs reporter, and her co-moderator, CNN anchor Cooper, are known for their no-nonsense approach to interviewing public officials. Both are at their best in the heat of the moment. And Sunday’s debate was, without question, the most explosive of the year — and a perfect test of their skills.
As expected, it got ugly. But Cooper and Raddatz were prepared, frequently tightening the reins to keep the debate on point. Their aggressiveness relative to past moderators — exemplified by Raddatz’s decision to parry with Donald Trump when he questioned why coalition forces in Iraq were advertising their planned assault on Mosul — was enough to anger some partisans, particularly in the Trump camp.
But the moderators were also aggressive about cutting off Clinton when she lapsed into long stump-speech answers. And given the volatility of the moment, exacerbated by Trump’s fiery outbursts in the early minutes, the moderators’ attempt to stick to the rules were the only thing that kept the discussion from spiraling out of control.
The first question from the audience was about whether the candidates were modeling appropriate behavior for children.
All eyes were on Trump. But in his initial response he did not even mention the explosive tape from 2005, which showed him making lewd and vulgar comments about women. Cooper pounced.
"The question was about ‘Are you both modelling positive and appropriate behavior for today's youth?” Cooper interjected. “ ‘ We received a lot of questions about the tape that was released on Friday. You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing women without consent and grabbing genitals. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?"
And Trump quietly agreed that it was locker room talk and wasn’t proud of it, then going on to compare his “talk” to Bill Clinton’s actions against women.
It was a question that needed to be asked. Likewise, though, Raddatz and Cooper made sure that they or questioners from the audience brought up subjects like Obamacare and Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street firms that weren’t covered in the first debate. And when Clinton didn’t directly answer them, they followed up.
After an audience member asked both candidates about Obamacare, Cooper queried Clinton: “Your husband called Obamacare the craziest thing in the world and coverage is cut in half. Was he mistaken or is he telling the truth?"
The most charged exchanges, however, were between Raddatz and Trump — especially when the Republican nominee began discussing ISIS and the Middle East, an area of special expertise for Raddatz.
Raddatz confronted Trump with the fact that his own running made, Gov. Mike Pence, has said "provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and that if Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes along with the Syrian forces, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime."
"He and I haven't spoken and I disagree,” Trump said, eliciting gasps in the press room.
Raddatz then appeared to question Trump’s grasp on foreign policy.
When Trump thundered about the lunacy of Washington publicly announcing the timeframe for attacks in Iraq — “How stupid is our country?” he asked — Raddatz seemed almost to debate him herself.
"There are sometimes reasons the military does that. Psychological warfare,” Raddatz said.
When Trump again questioned why the military can’t “do something secretively,” Raddatz came back with a simple question: “Tell me what your strategy is.”
Trump didn’t answer, and Raddatz turned to Clinton.
"Martha Raddatz trying to tutor Trump on foreign policy in real time. In the middle of a presidential debate. This is unprecedented,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Trump fought back by repeatedly accusing Raddatz and Cooper of giving Clinton more time — and demanding re-rebuttals to her rebuttals. When they didn’t let him, he’d talk anyway and they would talk over him. At times they sounded like strict teachers.
"She didn't interrupt you. Please allow her to respond,” Cooper said at one point.
Raddatz repeatedly just talked through Trump’s blustery objections.
"Martha Raddatz is in control! Tells Trump to be quiet. He sheepishly retreats,” tweeted Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin.
"Hey all other debate moderators: study what Cooper and Raddatz are doing this evening. And at a Town Hall!” wrote the Atlantic’s James Fallows.
The idea of the last question was also a refreshing change — an audience member asking what the two candidates admire about one another, giving both Clinton and Trump a chance to appear gracious at the end of an exchange destined to be remembered for its contentiousness.
Not everyone was happy with the moderating. Trump continuously complained about the time allotted to him and admonished Cooper for not bringing up Clinton’s emails and at one point said the debate was “three on one."
And some conservatives were quick to accuse the moderators of being too tough on the Republican.
"In future, get rid of "moderators" and let the candidates take the stage and have the debate without self-important media stars,” tweeted former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"Will someone please tell Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz they aren't debating and just stick to ASKING the questions not adding rebuttal,” wrote Fox News host Eric Bolling.
But despite Trump’s consistent complaints that Clinton was getting more time, a final count for speaking time by CNN showed that he got more time – though the split was nearly even: 40 minutes and 10 seconds for Trump, 39 minutes and five seconds for Clinton.
It was a sign of the tight control that both Raddatz and Cooper exerted on a debate that often seemed just about to whirl into chaos.