The only thing worse than having more presidential debates as bad as the one Tuesday night would be not having any at all.
Some politicians and pundits were quick to suggest that Donald Trump’s rude, crude conduct makes it possible, even desirable, for Joe Biden to withdraw from the remaining debates on Oct. 15 and 22, or for the Commission on Presidential Debates to cancel them. Doing so would give Trump’s flagging candidacy a lifeline. Moreover, it would remove another brick from the foundation of our political process already on the verge of collapsing.
Televised presidential debates have been conducted every four years since 1976. They draw huge ratings - although this week’s was down significantly from the first debate in 2016. For interested voters, they provide the only opportunity in a tediously long campaign to see the candidates on the same stage. Regardless, the degree to which they change voters’ minds is not the main reason for having them.
Debates are a reflection of our open society. Right now, based on Trump’s conduct in Cleveland, that reflection is not pretty, but it’s accurate. Ugly, uncompromising politics is the new national norm, reinforced by the echo chamber of fractionalized, partisan media.
As bad as Tuesday’s debate was, it was predictable and revealing. Trump showed his true self, and conservative outlets, led by Fox News, were forced to carry it live and uninterrupted for 90 minutes.
Joe Biden was decent, as expected, and semi-articulate. He managed to avoid his party’s worst fears that he would fumble or gaffe his way into Trump’s traps.
The moderator, Chris Wallace, faced an impossible task and performed well under the circumstances. Although urged by organizers to ask questions and stay clear of fact-checking, Wallace tried to curb the worst of Trump’s behavior. But the moderator is not a referee; he doesn’t have a penalty flag.
Some have suggested that the moderator should be given a mute switch. He could cut a candidate’s microphone when his opponent is speaking. As appealing as it might be to muzzle Trump, it’s a bad idea.
The point of this quadrennial exercise is to show the candidates for what they are. If Trump is a hostile, fact-deprived interrupter, then he must be seen and heard, not muted.
Still, the format could be better. Beginning in 2012 it was decided that debates would be divided into six segments, each starting with two-minute statements from each candidate, followed by a free exchange. The idea was to provide more depth on important topics and less fluff. But maybe that needs to be revisited.
When Trump and Biden were delivering their two-minute statements, Wallace was at least able to forcefully insist that each man allow the other to finish. Trump often ignored the command, but he was less interruptive than in the following section, where the timer was off and the free exchange was underway.
A return to the earlier approach - with timed answers and rebuttals, plus opening and closing statements - would be welcome. Wallace could have maneuvered better with more structure, not less.
I also believe it was a mistake to have Wallace announce the six debate topics in advance. While it’s true that nothing should surprise these candidates after so much debate prep, it makes little sense to provide an outline with which to prepare memorized answers.
The CPD says it will announce rules changes before the next debate.
If Joe Biden wins next month he’ll face bigger bullies than Donald Trump on the world stage. Those now urging a halt to the debates are only underscoring their original fear that Biden can’t handle Trump’s heat. I think they’re wrong.
Joe Biden has never walked away from a fight, and he has two more rounds to go in this one.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.