I used to think that taking the time to listen to candidates speak their minds was valuable. Certainly all the Presidential forums have shown us though, is that folks like to pick at a million different parts of the debates, most that have nothing to do with the questions or the real issues.
Then again, a good moderator can make a huge difference. CNN's Candy Crowley's methods, for instance, danced rings around CBS Bob Shieffer in the presidentials.
Locally I think there's an analogy in the run up to our Evanston elections in April, even though most are uncontested (which is a story all it's own).
I sat through a local forum at Haven Middle School last October with a half dozen state candidates - half Repubs the other Dems. The audience was perhaps 40 people, while the moderator was a nice local guy who I've met on several occassions. Unfortunately he wasn't forceful enough as a moderator to convince the candidates to abide by the rules he set out at the start. He entirely missed some of the candidate responses even though the audience tried to call his attention to the problem.
It seemed as if the Republican candidates had strategized that keeping the Dems on the defense that night was their goal. And I must say they did a swell job too.
But of course, we learned little of what the Republican candidates actually thought, mostly just what they didn't like ... their opponents.
While a strategy is perfectly legitimate in politics, the moderator needs to be able to see through these kinds of evasions to keep candidates focused on the issues.
One example from that night that stands out in my mind was when one of the Republicans demanded the Dems tell the audience whether or not they'd support Mike Madigan when they got back to Springfield ... "Yes or no?"
While I'm no Mike Madigan fan, I wasn't at Haven to choose a new Speaker. I wanted to know what the candidates thought of the pension crisis or property taxes or how to keep illegal guns out of the hands of the bad guys.
The moderator let this all slide until even the audience started yelling from the cheap seats. I did myself when I realized that the Republicans were making a great show out of trying to convince the Dems to defend themselves while adding nothing to the debate.
It's great to tell me at a forum that you're against Mike Madigan or that you don't want to raise taxes. But you need to tell me how you'll solve the problem if you want my vote.
If I want to listen to someone who is only successful at reflecting the questions to their opponents I guess I could listen to the kids at Haven themselves ... although I'd bet one of them would probably figure out the moderator's skills - or lack of them - quicker than anyone did at last October's forum.