Can the presidential debates be saved?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·6 mins read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

No one expected the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden to be a civil exchange of ideas. And presidential debates have long been forums for competing sound bites more than policy discussions. But even the most cynical of observers may not have predicted the shapeless, chaotic display that took place on Tuesday night.

Within the first few minutes, the debate devolved into a mess of interruptions, cross talk and diversions — driven largely by Trump’s unsuccessful strategy of trying to rattle Biden into a major mistake. The moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, tried to keep things on track, but his pleas for order often resulted in all three men talking at the same time. Despite questions aimed at sparking discussion on a number of crucial topics — the Supreme Court, the coronavirus pandemic, race, health care — only one moment seemed to break through the noise: Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups.

Political commentators from across the political spectrum agreed the debate was a mess. The event was alternately called a “food fight,” “unwatchable,” “a s***show” and simply “the worst debate in American history.” Even the organizers understood that the contest provided little value to voters. The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday morning that it would look to add “additional structure” to the format for the next two debates, which will reportedly allow the moderator to mute a candidate who interrupts his opponent.

Why there’s debate

Much of the commentary afterward considered what, if anything, could be done to turn the next two debates into events that actually provide insight to voters. A kind of mute button, reportedly under consideration, is one of the more popular suggestions. Under that scenario, Trump can try to disrupt Biden as much as he likes, but the TV audience would theoretically be unable to hear his answers if his mic is turned off. Some argued that future moderators need to be more forceful than Wallace in keeping the debate on track.

Others have called for significant changes to the format. Limiting open discussion and providing larger blocks of time for each candidate to make their points uninterrupted could help give the debates structure, some argue. A less optimistic group of pundits say there’s no level of format changes or moderator strategies that can rein in Trump if he’s determined to disrupt things. With that in mind, they argue, either the debate committee or Biden should accept reality and cancel the next two debates.

Another group believes changes aren’t actually necessary. A good portion of post-debate analysis saw Trump’s aggressive strategy as a tactical mistake. He may back off in the next debate if he and his advisers agree. The second presidential debate will have a “town hall” format, where questions are asked by members of the public — potentially making it harder for the candidates to drive the discussion off the rails.

What’s next

The president’s announcement that he has tested positive for COVID-19 has thrown every aspect of the campaign into doubt, including the debates. It’s unclear whether the second presidential debate, which was planned for Oct. 15, will be held as scheduled or whether it will happen at all.

Perspectives

The debates should be canceled unless major changes are made

“The debate can only be called a failure. The idea that two more like it are in the near future is simply unacceptable. The idea that either of the two coming moderators — Steve Scully of C-Span and Kristen Welker of NBC News — can hope to control things any better is a dubious one unless the format changes substantially.” — Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post

The moderator needs a mute button

“The mute button has become one of the most important elements of modern American life. ...

If only the negotiated debate rules had allowed Fox News anchor Wallace to have one when President Trump steamrolled into former Vice President Joe Biden’s speaking time Tuesday night. Or when Biden called Trump a “clown” and a “fool” and “the worst president America has ever had.’’ — David M. Shribman, Los Angeles Times

We shouldn’t blow up the traditional format just because of one candidate

“Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Debates have been around for thousands of years, and just because we have one candidate (Trump) who won’t even come close to playing by the rules, that doesn’t mean presidential debates aren’t still valuable. Like most things, they have to survive this presidency.” — Todd Graham, CNN

The moderator needs to be more assertive in keeping the debate on track

“Chris Wallace was utterly disgraceful as a moderator, constantly letting Trump interrupt Biden and allowing him to spout gross and anti-democratic lies about the legitimacy of the election.” — Michelle Goldberg, New York Times

There should be no moderator at all

“A presidential debate should be a conversation. Flip a coin to see who gets to start things off then just let … them … talk. … If you take moderators out of the conversation there is a chance you will end up with a conversation. An actual dialogue between two people who disagree.” — EJ Montini, Arizona Republic

The format should allow candidates more uninterrupted speaking time

“Under the circumstances, the traditional model for presidential debates doesn’t work very well. That’s a model designed to tease out minor distinctions and quibble over small points. It’s not really designed to handle that type of dramatic disagreements that we saw [Tuesday night] and in our politics today. … But what we need now is a model that gives the candidates more time to explain their views and to lay out for voters what’s really at stake.” — Laura Ingraham, Fox News

The town hall format will have more structure

“Town hall questions tend to the eminently predictable, combining personal testimony with impossibly broad inquiries. … But in this campaign, the format offers the best chance to salvage the debates. Why? Because the candidates will be responding to “regular people,” who are sharing these personal, sometimes unsophisticated, questions to a potential president.” — Jeff Greenfield, Politico

Trump must understand that his aggressive strategy isn’t working

“The bulk of the blame falls on Trump, who came with a clear plan and executed it flawlessly. Unfortunately, it was a very bad plan.” — Michael Goodwin, New York Post

No moderator can rein in Trump

“A lot of Democrats are going to blame Chris Wallace for this, but no moderator ever faced a challenge like this before. … Trump simply didn’t care what the rules were; any time he thought of some zinger, counter-argument, or insult, he let loose.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

Biden should refuse to participate in any more debates

“There is no reason, not one, that Joe Biden should participate in another debate.” — MSNBC host Joe Scarborough

The debates shouldn’t be changed at all

“A more policed debate would have: less engagement, more scripted talking points, more normalization of Trump. Last night people saw the candidates for who they are. That’s good enough for me.” — Politico editor Bill Scher

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