Debates are Broken, Here's How to Fix Them

An incompetent Debate Commission and impotent moderators have rendered the format moot.

First things first, Kamala Harris turned in a stellar debate performance under difficult circumstances in Wednesdays’s Vice Presidential debate. Ultimately, very few voters make their choice based on the Vice Presidential candidate, let alone how that candidate performs in a televised debate. The true value of the VP debate is all about delivering persuasive messaging and information. The (hopefully) future Vice President deftly navigated a series of rude interruptions to land some tough blows and inform viewers about core elements of the Biden-Harris agenda. Mike Pence, on the other hand, was wholly unimpressive in every way. I will admit that I laughed as a bunch of Trump skeptical Republicans cheered Pence on Twitter as the return of a “normal” Republican — well, congrats on anointing a dumb, homophobic, science denying, former talk show host as your standard bearer.

Despite Kamala Harris’s incredibly impressive performance, the debate was more evidence that that the Presidential debates are broken. This is about more than Trump being a COVID-infected bull in a china shop. The process, rules, formats, and norms that govern these debates are anachronistic, insufficient, and insulting. Who knows if there will be another debate this year, but there needs to be real changes before the circus comes back into town in four years.

Disband the Debate Commission

The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in the 1980s as part of a joint endeavor by the Democratic and Republican National Committees to create a semblance of order around the Presidential debate process. I am sure there was logic for this idea at the time, but the Commission has long outlived its usefulness. The commission — like so many decrepit Washington institutions — has revealed itself as entirely not up to the task in the Trump era.

The current chair of the Debate Commission is Frank Fahrenkopf, an octogenarian Republican gaming lobbyist. Fahrenkopf has been in this position for the entire existence of the Commission because he was the Republican Party chairman when it was formed. The fact that there has been no change in leadership since I was in middle school is absurd. The other members of the commission makes no sense either. It seems like a patronage operation. None of them are experts in the current state of politics, debates, or media. It is truly no wonder that we are in such a mess.

The people making the decisions that impact how millions will see the Presidential candidates could not be more disconnected from modern politics or media. Criticism of the Debate Commission is not new. In 1996, the New York Times Editorial Board called for an end to the Commission’s role in managing debates because of their initial refusal to include Independent candidate Ross Perot:

The commission proved itself to be a tool of the two dominant parties rather than a guardian of the public interest. This commission has no legal standing to monopolize debates, and it is time for some more fair-minded group to get into the business of sponsoring these important events.

The decision to exclude Perot, like many of the decisions made this year, benefited the Republican nominee. Bill Clinton wanted to include Perot. Bob Dole, his Republican opponent, did not.

During this election, the incompetence of the Commission on Presidential Debates has been astounding. After the first debate where Trump refused to follow the rules, Fahrenkopf expressed shock that rules written on a piece of paper with no enforcement mechanism failed. It’s unlikely that the members of the debate commission have been in a sensory deprivation since 2015 and missed the entire Trump era, but that could be the only possible explanation at their surprise and failure to prepare.

Trump’s constant interruptions made for bad television and denied the voters an opportunity to learn more about the candidates, but it wasn’t the only failure of the debate organizers. The Debate Commission and their partners at the Cleveland Clinic put lives at risk through sheer incompetence and cowardice. As the Washington Post reported:

 A little more than two days before she reported testing positive for the coronavirus, first lady Melania Trump — as well as the president’s sons, daughters and several guests — violated safety protocols at the first presidential debate by taking off their masks after being seated in a live studio audience in Cleveland.

Several in the president’s entourage continued without masks after an official from the Cleveland Clinic, which co-hosted the debate, offered them masks in case they didn’t have any, according to debate moderator Chris Wallace. “They waved them away,” Wallace said on Fox News on Friday morning.

A competent organization with a spine would have been prepared to throw out anyone — including the First Family — that violated the mask requirements. Walmart greeters do a better job at this every day. It was embarrassing and there should be accountability for this failure. Joe Biden, his family, and staff were put needlessly at risk. All of this comes on top of the fact that the commission and the Cleveland Clinic relied on some sort of honor system for COVID-testing from the candidates. To this day, we do not know when the President last tested negative, but it seems like it was a long time before he showed up for the debate.

At bare minimum, there should be wholesale leadership changes at the Debate Commission. This crew is clearly not up to the task. Even that step probably isn’t sufficient, I would disband the whole commission and start fresh with a new organization run by journalists not former party hacks. If the goal is truly to inform the public, the people making the debate rules should be people more interested in the public interest than finding some porridge just lukewarm enough to not offend either party.

Moderators Shouldn’t be Invisible

During Tuesday’s debate, Mike Pence refused to address the topics of the questions asked by Susan Page, the moderator. At no point did Page follow up or even really point out that Pence didn’t answer her question. It was absolutely absurd. There was really no point in having a moderator, they could have just put the apparently optional questions on a teleprompter and spared one more person from possibly getting COVID from a Trump official.

This isn’t a critique of Susan, whom I have known for many years and believe to be an excellent reporter and person of great integrity. Her impotence was by design. As Frank Fahrenkopf told CNN’s Brian Stelter before the first Presidential debate:

When we choose moderators, we make very clear to them that there’s a vast difference between being a moderator in a debate and being a reporter who is interviewing someone. When you’re interviewing someone, if they say something that is in direct opposition to something they said a week ago, your duty is to follow up and say, ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t say that a week ago.’ But that’s not the case for a debate.

Sorry to be impolite — but are you fucking kidding me? That is truly one of the dumbest things I have ever heard in my life. This would be an absurd approach in normal times with normal candidates, but we are dealing with Donald Trump, someone that has lied tens of thousands of times. What possible public interest could be served by setting up a system that incentivizes lying?

The moderators need to be fully empowered to enforce the rules, steer the conversation, fact check, and ask follow up questions. They also need to know what they are talking about, which might mean that future moderators are subject matter experts instead of well-coiffed teleprompter readers.

Facts Over Balance

The Debate Commission with the acquiescence of the moderators opposes fact checking because they think it would be unfair to Republicans. Like too many in politics, they prize balance over accuracy. A moderator fully empowered to fact check the candidates would make mincemeat of liars like Trump and Pence. Republicans would get mad at the commission and the Republican head of the commission would then be sad or something. There is a history to this phenomenon that dates back a couple of elections.

Republicans are still steaming about the last time a moderator fact checked a Presidential candidate. In 2012, Mitt Romney smugly wound up for a giant attack on Barack Obama about Benghazi. Romney was convinced that Obama had waited 14 days to refer to the attack on our embassy as an act of terror. As Romney paced the stage with the shit-eating grin of a prep school boy about to win a polo tourney, Candy Crowley gently reminded Romney that Obama had referred to the attack as an act of terror on the first day. Romney melted on the spot and the Republicans pitched a fit that a moderator had the gall to provide the audience with facts.

Facts are not partisan. Truth is real. Science is real. So many of this country’s problems come from the fact that our institutions would rather be nice to Republicans than hold them accountable for lying. If accountability on a the debate stage with 70 million people watching is too much to ask for, then we are truly screwed.

What to Do Differently

Lots of people smarter than me will have more creative ideas about the future of debates, but here are few thoughts about what to do differently.

  1. Establish the Rules Early: Currently, the moderators, rules, locations and everything else are all subject to negotiations between the campaigns. If the commission truly wants authority, they should announce the rules and moderators long before we know which candidates will be on stage. The debates are the biggest audiences the candidates will have in the campaign. The commission has leverage. They should use it by making the debates and their rules a take it or leave it proposition.

  2. Experts not Anchors: The moderators should have real expertise in the issues that define the campaign. Understandably, some of the experts may not be trained television performers (TV can make you dumb). This can be addressed by using multiple moderators at the same debate — a television type and a reporter or other expert on the economy, foreign affairs, COVID etc. Imagine if Dr. Sanjay Gupta or Don McNeil of the New York Times had been on stage to ask follow up questions of the candidates.

  3. Real Time Factchecking: Asking a moderator to factcheck and/or contextualize every statement is an impossible task even with candidates that lie less than Trump. The cable networks do a good job of ex post facto checking with segments after the debate is over, but most of the audience has turned the channel none the wiser of the lies told to them. The public interest would be better served by real time fact checking — either via chryon during the debate or during periodic intermissions.

Some believe that there is no need to make real changes because the problems are unique to Trump. But that false hope was undermined by Pence’s more than 40 interruptions, his constant lies, and Karen Pence bounding up on stage without a mask even though she should be quarantining right now due to her exposure to multiple people infected with COVID. There are no signs that the Republican Party is going to normalize anytime soon. The next Republican nominee will be someone just as willing to defy the rules, attack the moderators and bend the truth as Trump. We need a new approach to this very old tradition.

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