Amid the liberal hand-wringing about Obama's alleged "loss" in the debate, and the conservative chest-pounding about Romney's alleged "win," and all the noisy fact-checking on Romney's lies, almost nobody has mentioned something that I personally found very chilling on Wednesday night. It was Romney's brazen demonstration of contempt for parliamentary procedure - for the "other person's right to speak" that is fundamental to our democratic process.
I'm talking about the 12 times in 90 minutes (count 'em) that Romney interrupted moderator Jim Lehrer. Sometimes, in the course of a lengthy interruption, he also interrupted President Obama. Several times, when Lehrer tried to assert himself, Romney continued to bulldoze and bully and push the interruption till Lehrer gave up and let him take an extra turn.
Lehrer has stated that a debate moderator should be like a baseball umpire - get out of the way and let the debators play. But on Wednesday night Lehrer forgot that real-life umpires are there to enforce the rules of the game. And sometimes the umpire has to kick a player's butt.
Like many Americans, I've had my routine exposure to the rules of parliamentary procedure through belonging to organizations. Mine started as a teen with 4-H and Rainbow Girls, and went on through various adult organizations, notably nonprofit boards of directors.
But it was in Los Angeles Unified School District in the late 1990s, serving as a commissioner of education, that I got crystal clear about the life-and-death importance of parliamentary procedure. I was appointed one of the parliamentarians for the Human Relations Education Commission when it was started - a body that brought together a volatile mix of racial, ethnic and other groups with histories of being oppressed, that were battling for equality in the district. Respect for every viewpoint on that commission - whether you personally agreed with it or not - was a given if the HREC was to get through its monthly meeting without a blow-up. We lived and breathed by Roberts Rules of Order. It was the parliamentarians' job to advise the chair and the members on the rules.
In America's supposedly democratic society, Robert's Rules of Order is the traditionally accepted procedure for every public discussion and debate and decision-making - whether in Congress, or a local chamber of commerce, or a board of directors, or a town meeting. In every such event, the chairperson is there to see that the meeting is orderly and the rules are observed. Everybody who wants to speak should be able to do so without being interrupted. If a situation gets out of hand, the chair can call on the sergeant-at-arms to escort a troublemaker out of the room.
So What Really Happened?
On Wednesday night, Jim Lehrer was supposed to be the chair. That's what a debate moderator is supposed to do - not just decide on the questions and watch the time. I was waiting and wishing for Lehrer to assert his authority as chair and say, "Governor Romney, you're out of order. Don't interrupt." Indeed, at the start of the event, when Lehrer laid out the ground rules, he should have added, "And no interruptions, please."
Instead, Lehrer let Romney make tire tracks all over him. Either he was being partial to the Republican candidate, or he lacks the stuff to handle this kind of situation.
Obama, at least, showed a minimal respect for democratic procedure. He refrained from interrupting Romney. The only time he interrupted Lehrer was over his time being shorted by five seconds. What Obama could have done - and should have done - was call Romney on the interruptions right then and there. Instead, unfortunately, the President held back and let the moment pass.
Why does Romney interrupt? He represents a segment of American society who say openly that they don't believe in democracy. They believe that their God is above human rules, and that God makes their political opinions "right." So they see themselves as being above society, and not answerable to it. They don't feel that they have to show respect for the opinions of others. Hence (for example) the heckling and raucous interrupting that Tea Partiers do at countless town halls across the country for the last couple of years.
But this religious-right disrespect for "order" is happening in a larger American context. As a deeply stressed society, we're losing our grip on the ability to have "civil discourse." You can see it any day on TV talk shows and news shows, where the typical round-table discussion often disintegrates as people get steamed up. They start by interrupting each other. Next, everybody is talking over the top of everybody else. And the moderator (if there is one) is either helpless to stop it, or is actually participating in the angry babel.
But Wednesday night in Colorado was not your routine ruckus on a news show. What we saw that night was a moment in U.S. history when a Presidential candidate was allowed to get away with procedural murder in front of a global audience of millions. Romney showed blatant disrespect for the chair and the other speaker from beginning to end of the event. To me, the spectacle was appalling. It shows me how far down the slippery slope of social and political decay our country has slid, with less and less possibility of an orderly procedure to analyze and solve our problems.
Just as appalling is the way most news media are oblivious to what really happened on Wednesday night. CNN praised Romney for "shaking up the race." The Detroit Free Press burbled about Romney's "confident debate performance." Others lauded Romney as "game-changing," "aggressive." They condemned Obama for not being just as "aggressive." Some suggested that Obama should have interrupted Romney himself, immediately, to point out his lies. I don't think so. If Obama had interrupted too, he would have sunk down in the dirt to Romney's level. The debate might have decayed into the typical TV shouting match. That would even more heartbreaking for us all to watch than the spectacle we saw on Wednesday.
Romney is seen by many as "winning" on "style" and "performance." But what was that performance? It was not just telling a pack of lies about his platform. It was the bullying, the cutting across another person's time to speak, the riding roughshod over Obama and the moderator. "Style" was trampling on the dignity and order that the debate deserved to have as a public political event. Which is exactly the kind of Presidency that Romney will deliver if he wins. He, and his party, and his religious supporters, will see to it that the rest of us have less and less chance to speak as well.
Indeed, Romney must have done a lot of bullying and interrupting while governor of Massachusetts, in order to make himself so patently unpopular there. In Boston Magazine, Jason Schwartz wrote the other day, "Romney made such a mess of things in Massachusetts that he's not even trying to campaign in the state where he was chief executive just six years ago."
In the remaining debates, I hope the next moderators have some courage and preside like a real chair.
But if the moderators go on enabling Romney's power-play disruptions, Obama will once again have the challenge of calling for order himself. When his next turn comes, he ought to say, "Governor, with all due respect, you're out of order. Don't interrupt me again. And don't interrupt the moderator." That action would not only put Romney in his place in front of millions of people around the world - it would also demonstrate Obama's greater fitness for the White House, more than a dozen rebuttals of Republican lies could ever hope to do.
(Umpire whistle graphic via Bigstock)