The Real Winner of Last Night's Debate? Martha Raddatz

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Last night, during a post-debate cocktail, I said it: "Martha for president."

"Martha," of course, refers to Martha Raddatz, the moderator of the vice presidential debate, who did such a good job forcing realtalk out of the two candidates that I wish she'd hold the position for the rest of the election. Between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, there was no landslide winner. Biden did seem to dominate, coming out swinging with the energy missing from Obama's performance last week. He got in many jabs and one-liners (the word "malarkey" is enjoying new life today). Still, Ryan kept it cool, sticking to his talking points and coming off sincere next to Biden's incessant smirking.

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But let's be real: The true winner was Raddatz.

A major subplot of the first Romney-Obama debate was the abysmal performance of moderator Jim Lehrer. Not only did he ask maddeningly general questions — "What are the differences between the two of you?" was repeated several times — he also allowed both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to steamroll over him. The debate was disappointing to Obama fans, sure, but it was equally frustrating for journalists the world over.

Raddatz, on the other hand, was in complete control. "Let's move to Iran," she commanded — and they did. She pressed them to clarify their answers — "what does that mean, 'a bunch of stuff'?" she asked Biden when he used that phrase to describe one of Ryan's answers. (Actually, it was more like "sh-stuff." Bless Biden for almost cursing on national television...again.)

Raddatz cut the candidates off when they digressed. She dug into Biden about Ambassador Stevens' death, asking if it was "a massive intelligence failure." She refused to let Ryan evade a question about the GOP's plan to increase the defense budget. By the New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal's count, she underlined that point six times. She looked him right in the eye and asked: "I want to know how you do the math and have this increase in defense spending?" The whole 90 minutes was downright Sorkin-esque, reminding me of that aggressive rendition of a mock debate on HBO's The Newsroom.

I wasn't crazy about how Raddatz framed abortion in terms of the candidates' personal and religious principles; haven't we heard enough from white dudes' private views on women's bodies? As Salon's Irin Carmon pointed out, the question's framing omitted women from the equation right away. But she managed to cover taxes, the budget deficit, Medicare, Social Security, national security, and Afghanistan and still asked the abortion question before time ran out — the word "women" wasn't even uttered during last week's debate.

Let this be a lesson to hapless debate moderators, past and future: The two sides do better when you keep them in line.

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