Excerpted from Dan Zak in the Washington Post (emphasis added):
Obama (in a partisan blue tie) and Romney (in partisan red) were so scripted that there were few moments of spontaneity or conflict. Primarily fatal to the evening’s entertainment quotient was Lehrer’s insistence that the studio audience remain silent. This is standard in presidential debates, but it sucks the air out of the room and the viewing experience.
The debate was transmitted mostly in split-screen and staged on what looked like the set of a grade-school civics pageant, with its bright-red carpeting, blue backdrop embossed with constitutional language and looming placard of a bald eagle — never mind that the national mascot also happens to be “a bully, thief, coward [and] eater of carrion,” at least according to a 1935 article in Time magazine.
Obama and Romney were all four of those things during the ponderous debate — walking all over Lehrer, stealing their own stump-speech lines, hiding behind big numbers, snacking on anecdotes regarding “real Americans.”
There are two sure ways to reinvent the presidential debate as healthy, lively entertainment: Give the moderator the power to cut a candidate’s microphone, and get third-party candidates on the stage. Having a third actor who’s less beholden to a major-party script would invigorate a campaign tradition that has become as predictable and starchy as the candidates’ navy-blue suits and white shirts.