Chaos reigned during the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign season, and President Trump was clearly to blame for the mayhem. His bluster so derailed the performance that much of the country, and indeed the world, was simply lost for words afterward. How should anyone respond to such a disastrous display of juvenile bickering on the part of the president? And what should we make of the ineptitude of the moderator, Chris Wallace? The prevailing feeling expressed by onlookers across the political spectrum was some variation of the following theme: this is confusing, upsetting, and just sad. For one thing, it is not a good look for the US presidential debate to feature two men who lack full control over the use of their mouths for speaking — one who seems to stumble over basic words and the other who physically cannot shut up. For another, the fact that Chris Wallace was simply unprepared for the dynamic of Trump railroading the entire format raises questions about the value of future debates. If there is one take away from last night, it should be that the current debate format does not suit the current participants and should either be drastically reformed or canceled.
As I have argued in the past, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is in need of drastic reforms. The CPD is designed to exclude third-party candidates from the debate stage and control what the format of the debates look like, what questions get asked, and coordinate and broker deals with major news networks who stand to make millions of dollars from the performances. The problems are myriad, but one major flaw is and always has been the moderation. Moderators in the current format are toothless, with no ability to cut off microphones or otherwise control debaters. The CPD and indeed the campaigns who have participated in CPD organized debates would probably not agree to such mic control (although perhaps the time has come to more seriously consider such measures) if only because such control could introduce bias into the format, and supporters of any muted candidate would surely cry foul. But without such control, moderators must rely on appealing to the common sense and civility of the participants to stay on topic. That feature of the moderation, of course, runs directly counter to the incentives that the rest of the debate set up. After all, with just a few minutes to cover such vast and wide-ranging topics as climate change, supreme court nominations, the economy, immigration, etc., nothing substantive can be discussed, and therefore, the focus of a savvy debater shifts to trying to score quick wins with one-liners and spectacles that can later be clipped into sound bites and distributed by the media and campaigns. That incentive to create spectacle pushes debaters to test the limits of the debate format in order to grab attention and headlines. In the past, the only thing that has contained debaters is a need to pay lip service to some vague notion of civility and respect for rules and fairness. But this is 2020, and Trump’s entire candidacy is predicated on the notion that ‘the system is corrupt’ and that ‘as long as he doesn’t do anything illegal,’ he is actually smart for breaking rules where possible in order to gain an advantage on his opponents. Chris Wallace should have been prepared for Trump to break every rule in the CPD playbook. But he was not, and last night the entire charade finally came crashing down on his head.
There is no easy fix for such a situation. After all, while it is true that the format of the debates is in need of reform, it is equally true that any changes will simply set new boundaries for participants to test and break. New formats will also always introduce new headaches, and no format will perfectly satisfy everyone. Our neighbors to the North, for instance, have mic control as a feature of their debates and moderators strictly control the time and who is allowed to speak. But Canada is not America, and their debates are boring in comparison precisely because the format of the debate is so much more rigid. It is very likely that, if substantive reforms were made to the format for the purposes of wrangling in unruly debaters, Americans would simply tune out and ratings would drop, which would give the CPD and news networks less incentive to host them in the first place. Americans want spectacle, just not the kind of spectacle we got last night.
If there is a silver lining to be had here, it is that the audience was not a factor at all in the debate. The audience was there, but the hall was sparsely populated due to the ongoing pandemic, and the crowd had agreed to stay almost completely silent. Whereas the audience's reactions have driven candidates' responses and reactions in the past, last night, the candidates were able to focus on each other and the moderator in a way not seen before. In 2016, Trump especially used the audience to throw his opponents off-balance, such as when we would say something intentionally inflammatory in order to provoke jeers and taunts from his supporters. This time, however, he had no audience to work with, and the fact that no one really seemed to notice that lack of audience was actually a positive development. Candidates responded to each other and the cameras instead of some off-screen studio audience that no one watching from home could see or hear. The flow of the debate was not punctuated by applause and cheers, which made the broadcast clearer, and the production value higher. In the future, the CPD and debate moderators should keep the audience out and continue to discourage audience participation.
As for the rest of the debate, the stilted format and unruly president combined to create a sad mess. It was like watching a bad reality TV version of a presidential debate. Chris Wallace should have seen this coming. After all, it is his job as the moderator to prepare to moderate both candidates, and Trump is notoriously hard to control. The fact that Wallace was caught so flat-footed was supremely unhelpful, and his attempts to lecture Trump like a school teacher cost him a lot of credibility as an interrogator and a critic. He seemed to commiserate with Biden at one point, acknowledging that he too was having trouble with the President. And his admonishments did little to bring Trump to heel. His weakness only highlighted the president’s dominance, and that dynamic probably helped Trump with many voters who will read Trump’s bloviating as alpha male behavior.
That being said, it remains far from obvious what Wallace could have done differently or what format would have been more effective in light of Trump’s commitment to breaking rules he does not like. At the end of the day, Trump was the bull, and all of the problems in Wallace’s china shop flowed from Trump’s rambunctiousness. While Wallace certainly deserves some blame for letting Trump get away with not answering questions and going off-topic — he never did follow up about Trump’s Supreme Court pick, for instance — just how much blame he deserves is harder to say. He may have been the wrong man for the job, but it may have also been a hopeless job to begin with.
Unfortunately, with Trump as the president, it is clear that no format will really serve the public’s interest very well. There were some rumblings among the more naive anti-establishment folks online about potentially bringing in Joe Rogan to moderate the next debate, but that would be even worse given how easily Rogan is manipulated by others, not to mention how polarizing he is on the left. Another idea floating around is to fully automate the debates to eliminate the potential for Wallace-style failures in the future. The idea would be to simply have questions appear on a screen and then have each candidate’s mic turned on and off for alternating 2-minute segments. But such a format would give the candidates completely free reign to disregard the questions entirely and say whatever they want (which they already do, but automating the debate moderation would simply make this the default).
In conclusion, since no format will be able to control Trump’s worst excesses, the rest of the debates should probably be canceled. Neither campaign benefited from last night’s spectacle, although Biden didn’t seem to lose any voters, so in some sense, his campaign might consider that a win. However, the public didn’t learn anything of substance, and the US lost credibility on the world stage. It would be more productive to watch Trump and Biden duke it out on the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course than to hold yet another childish bickering match with a moderator who is clearly out of his depths. If Trump refuses to play by the rules of the game, then we should just cancel the game. No more debates. Period. Not until the CPD, the news media, and Trump himself, come to their senses.