No matter how depressing tonight’s presidential debate becomes, we can take one bit of comfort. This isn’t merely the last debate of 2020; it could well be the last of its kind, ever.
We finally have a chance to create improved debates, because the current sponsor, the Commission on Presidential Debates, has bungled its mission so badly that Republicans are vowing never again to submit to its whims. The commission is a private group that claims to be bipartisan, but as Bob Dole pointed out, none of its Republican members support Donald Trump. Its last-minute rule changes were opposed by the Trump campaign and welcomed by the Biden campaign. Its moderators have consistently favored Democrat-friendly topics, directing the most hostile questions to Trump and Mike Pence while repeating Democratic talking points as if they were uncontested facts.
This year’s fiascos are partly due to the singular hostility that Trump has aroused in the press corps and the rest of the Washington establishment. (Though his boorishness in the first debate didn’t help, either.) But the basic problem is the debate format. Instead of confronting each other directly, the candidates must answer questions from journalists who usually have neither the skills nor the incentives to moderate a debate properly.
This problem existed long before Trump. It became obvious to me during the 1992 campaign, when I had the job of reviewing debates for the New York Times. This forced me to watch every one of them during the primaries as well as the general election—a stupefying experience I would not recommend to anyone.
Washington journalists weren’t so openly partisan back then—they wouldn’t have proclaimed it their moral duty to save the country from then-president George H. W. Bush—but they were overwhelmingly liberal in their politics. Like this year’s moderators, who have obsessed about climate change and racism instead of issues like foreign policy or school choice for minority children, they concentrated on topics that appealed to liberal Democrats. There’d been a mild recession that ended 18 months before the 1992 election, but to judge from the campaign coverage and the debates, the United States was still reeling from a catastrophic depression created by the Bush administration.
Even when the debate moderators and questioners weren’t liberal themselves, they felt obliged to focus on the press corps’ favorite Democratic themes because their overriding concern was to impress their colleagues. Like this year’s moderators, they asked vague, long-winded questions meant to demonstrate their own thoughtfulness. Or they tried to embarrass the candidates with trivial “gotcha” questions that would generate a gaffe—the ultimate debate trophy for a journalist.
A moderator can keep the debate focused, but what’s really needed is someone with the experience and skills of John Donvan, the former ABC correspondent who for more than a decade has been moderating debates for Intelligence Squared. No matter what the topic, these debates are consistently far more informative and entertaining than the presidential debates. The debaters frame the issues themselves, making arguments and counter-arguments without interruption for half an hour. Then they take turns answering questions from one another, from the audience, and from Donvan, who adroitly prods them to clarify some of their points and address the other side’s arguments.
So why not let Donvan and Intelligence Squared run the debates in 2024? Let experienced professionals take over from the commission that couldn’t even keep its promise of three debates this year. They could use the same format as Intelligence Squared, a series of timed speeches and rebuttals followed by questions, but I’d also like to see them experiment with another approach—the one used in the best debate I reviewed in the 1992 campaign.
It featured no podiums, no list of topics, no fixed rotation of questions, no time limits on answers, and no formal closing statements. Bill Clinton and the other Democrats seeking the nomination sat around a table for a discussion moderated by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchors. Instead of dictating who spoke when and for how long about which issue, the moderators threw out general questions and let the candidates talk to one another. The moderators occasionally intervened to ask for specifics or keep the discussion from wandering, but they mostly let the candidates run the show.
It lacked the gladiatorial drama of candidates hurling insults across the stage, but it was by far the most revealing and substantive debate of the year. Instead of delivering rehearsed sound bites or fending off accusations from showboating journalists, the candidates had coherent disagreements. For viewers, it was a rare glimpse of how they differed on the issues, grappled with contradictions, and dealt with criticism. They couldn’t stonewall by standing at a podium issuing denunciations. They had to conduct a civil conversation with another human being sitting across the table.
We can’t expect anything like that tonight, of course. Maybe it will be more civil and substantive than the first Trump-Biden debate—how could it fail to be?—but that’s too low of a bar. Let this one be the last.
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