Before President Donald Trump contracted COVID-19, a strong case could be made for modifying the format of the remaining debates from face-to-face to remote. Now it’s essential.
It may seem premature to consider the format of future debates before we know the seriousness of the president’s condition. But at present, the nation should operate under the assumption that the president is going to recover and that the campaign will go on.
The first debate was a disaster. Only those with an appreciation for rhetorical blood sport found anything uplifting or informative in the confrontation between Trump and Joe Biden.
Superlatives abounded. Some called it “the worst presidential debate in history.” Columnist Frank Bruni called it “the most chaotic, counterproductive and outright offensive American presidential debate” in his lifetime. CNN’s Dana Bash called it a certain kind of show, using an adjective that your newspaper may not print.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the debates since 1987, knows that it has a problem. Within 12 hours it promised new measures to inject more order into the debates. As yet, they are unspecified.
But in light of the president’s infection and the fact that he may have been contagious during the first debate, the most obvious and essential change is a move to a remote format.
During Pandemic 2020, when all sorts of ordinarily face-to-face events are functioning adequately on Zoom, there is no reason for the presidential debaters to be in the same room, or even the same city. The debaters do not shake hands. No audience is present. The debates’ audiences see them through television. The debaters’ physical locations are irrelevant.
Further, a remote debate could be inherently more orderly. Some have suggested cutting the mics of debaters who interrupt, cross-talk or exceed their time limits. But Trump, an inveterate rule-breaker, is unlikely to be reined in by a dead mic as long as Biden is within 20 feet.
A remote debate could solve this problem. Take away from the moderator the responsibility for controlling an unmanageable speaker. Everyone’s mic should be muted except for the speaker’s during his prescribed time. Then the speaker is cut off, automatically and completely. Interruptions and cross-talk would be impossible.
Do away with the split-screen that poses the debaters side-by-side, thus eliminating the distracting smirks, frowns, head-shaking and eye-rolls. Give each debater his prescribed time at center-stage, during which he can say anything he wants, without interruptions.
The idea of real-time fact checkers is attractive, but in practical terms fact-checking is probably best done after the debate. Instead, let the campaigns agree beforehand on several nonpartisan or bipartisan moderators whose sole job it is to clarify particular threads of questioning, which, under the current system, tend to get steamrolled by the next interruption or outburst. In fact, let’s call these extra moderators “clarifiers.”
They could ask follow-up questions such as: “Mr. Biden, you didn’t answer Mr. Trump’s question about your willingness to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court for ideological balance. Will you answer that question now?”
Or “Mr. Trump, you indicated that you paid millions in income tax in 2016, while a credible source says that you paid only $750. Can you explain?”
Then let the candidate talk for a prescribed time, center-screen, without interruption or cross-talk, and see how he does.
Some may argue that the candidates need to be subjected to the pressure of a face-to-face confrontation. Maybe. But we’ve tried that. In the current case, it was a failure.
May Trump recover, and may the debates go on. But if there is another debate, the pandemic and good order demand that it be in a remote format. The new format should begin with the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7.
It’s worth remembering that the presidential debates belong to the people, not to the candidates. The debates’ format should suit what best serves the people. Conducting the debates remotely would be safer, and it would also be a way of reclaiming them from candidates who refuse to play by the rules.