It actually does a disservice to Democratic voters when a moderator like Tim Russert becomes a debate participant and makes a show of only pressing one candidate severely. Part of the point of these debates is to show how the various candidates respond to pressure, and to learn about their thoughts on various issues. If only one candidate is being pressed about differences with other candidates, it is unfair to the voters who are also trying to evaluate the rest of the packBefore last night's event all the talk was about how the attacks on Hillary Clinton were going to be turned up a notch. That's the life of a frontrunner, so no problem. But when you combine that with the fact that the moderators also seemed to be aiming most of their fire at Clinton, the whole thing started to look more like a witch hunt than a debate. I'm not sure if questions about the Peruvian trade deal would have been the answer, but Garance is right: the moderators need to figure out a way to illuminate the differences between the candidates, not just play gotcha against one of them.
For example, it would have been interesting and illuminating to have heard from John Edwards and Barack Obama on the Peru trade deal, given how hot a topic trade is in Iowa, and how they clearly disagree with each other on this issue and also since Hillary Clinton is still on the fence about the deal. But Peru didn't even come up, because the course of the debate questioning, at least in the first hour, was dictated by and echoed the course of various candidate attacks on Clinton over Social Security and Iran, and then a G.O.P. one on Obama, rather than by questions that would illuminate policy differences between any of the other candidates. After that, the questions were an odd-mix of open-ended softballs to the non-frontrunning candidates and attempts to press Clinton over things other members of the New York delegation support.
First step: get rid of Tim Russert. Ugh. He's a terrible interviewer and a terrible moderator. Second step: put together a panel of Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Greg Mankiw to moderate a debate on economic issues. Find equally eminent subject matter experts to moderate debates on other subjects. Ditch the pundits and news anchors entirely. Third step: I'm not sure. But there has to be a third step, right? It's the law.