What was clear, from early in last night’s debate, was that Fox News host and debate moderator Chris Wallace was in control–of his questions, the candidates, and the audience.
Before the debate, Wallace’s stated plan as moderator was to go light on intervention. “You’re there as a time keeper, but you’re not a participant. You’re there just to make sure that they engage in the most interesting and fairest way possible,” Wallace told Bret Baier in an interview Sunday before the debate.
The strategy had its skeptics. Based on what we had witnessed from the previous debates, it seemed like a moderation strategy that might rival the chaotic exchanges that came before. In practice, Wallace set a tone that left little room for antics.
“Mr. Wallace mixed humor with scolding and persistence with patience to guide his charges toward the most substantive encounter of an unusually vicious election,” wrote New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum of the “battle-tested political interrogator.”
The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi described Wallace’s “soft but insistent touch” in “asking a series of substantive questions that produced fewer verbal fireworks from candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and perhaps the most policy-focused discussion of the vitriol-laced race.”
Slate’s Isaac Chotiner called this final debate the “only watchable 90 minute debate of the general election,” giving partial credit to Wallace for a “controlling, imperfect, but ultimately successful moderating job.” And part of that, according to Chotiner, was Wallace’s organization vis-a-vis “clearly delineated topics.” Chotiner was also impressed with Wallace’s–forgive our word choice here–stamina. “Wallace got tougher and better as the debate went on; his questions got clearer and his interruptions more well-timed,” he wrote.
And in USA today’s “definitive ranking of presidential (and VP) debate moderators” Wallace took first place. “He established his authority early and asked substantial, policy-based questions. Unlike the other moderators, supporters of both Clinton and Trump largely found his questions and follow-ups fair,” wrote Carly Mallenbaum.
Where there was criticism, it came in the phrasing of some of Wallace’s questions, as Chotiner noted, which seemed to have a particular viewpoint baked in.