Originally Posted: October 3, 2020
Amid the clamor and uproar of presidential debate number one on Tuesday night, moderator Chris Wallace invited the president to come and take his seat as the moderator. Though meant in jest, the exchange was an important signifier of the ongoing struggle to have better presidential debates. The responsibility for the quality of presidential debates rest squarely with the Commission on Presidential Debates, as it has since that commission took over the process from the League of Women Voters in 1987. While improvements have been made, the process continues to be squandered by the commission, and its admission Wednesday that immediate reforms will be implemented is an admission of ongoing problems. Reforms are possible to make the debates a more ideal means for public consumption of political argument.
Reforms must be oriented toward understanding what ideal debate can and should do. Ideally, the presidential debates offer a relatively unobstructed view of candidate arguments within a realm of direct contrast. The problem with debates already in the 21st century is the ongoing obstructions created by the CPD, primarily in the role of moderators. Since the first presidential debates in 1960, journalists occupy an excessive role in the debates. If you watch the newsreel on YouTube of the first televised debate, you are immediately struck by the overly dramatic introduction of the journalistic hosts after opening statements. They turn in their chairs to be introduced to the viewing audience as if they were stars of the show. We must acknowledge that these are in fact some of the biggest TV shows in television history — regularly drawing more than 60 million viewers for 90 minutes of political argument. The mold cast by the 1960 debates is a flawed one, placing journalist interrogators in the role of debate guardians. The public is drawn too often — as it was again Tuesday night — to what the moderators are saying and arguing in the debate — and away from the content of the candidates. Chris Wallace said he “wanted to be invisible.” He was not. The obstruction of moderators grows in each election cycle, and in 2020, their consumption of speaking time will likely exceed 20 percent. There is no justification for this — either with regard to how debates ideally work or as medium for transmitting political knowledge to the public. The public knows what Chris Wallace thinks along with an array of journalistic personalities who covet this too large TV show. The public wants less of the media and more of the candidates.
Grassroots debate experts could fulfill the unmet promise of invisibility. Debate professionals understand what a debate is, how time limits work, and what the invisible role of a moderator is intended to accomplish. The pretense that journalists have special implied knowledge of televised debate is failing us again and again. The vital neutrality of the moderators is unobserved and this also damages the integrity of the Presidential debate process. Candy Crowley’s gross intervention in presidential debates 2012 and Donna Brazile giving Hillary Clinton advanced questions in 2016 are flagrant examples of abused partiality. Republicans rightly suspect that the deck is stacked against them.
In 1992, I was in a doctoral communication cohort where graduate students were helping prepare what the questions would be for the first ever town meeting format debate between Bill Clinton and George Bush. As I was looking at data on public preferences of question topics, I noted that I was surprised that abortion did not make the top ten of public interest areas. My doctoral colleague responded, “It did, but we don’t want our candidate to have to talk about that topic.” That colleague is now one of the nation’s top experts on presidential debates. In 2018, my field of communication was found to be one of only two fields of study where not a single registered Republican could be found on a roster of 40 nationwide universities. We ought to recognize that the “town meeting” is and always was a sham format where moderators could hide their internal biases in the “random” selection of audience members and their previously viewed note cards. This fall, one town meeting participant for Vice President Biden refused to play along with the scripted pretense. Real debate confers equal time on two parties on a topic mutually agreed upon. The town meeting format is designed to fool the public into believing that the moderators are not pulling the argumentative strings in these debates. Most people now see through that gambit created in 1992. The town meeting format should be scrapped.
The nation would be wise to consider moving the entire infrastructure of public presidential debates to the domain of the National Archives and Records Administration and the province of Presidential Libraries. There are more than a dozen federally and privately held presidential centers and foundations that would make better hosts and planners of these events. The Presidential Library system could serve as ideal debating sites and a strong method for connecting the presidential past to the nation’s future regarding presidential leadership. Under current arrangements, former presidents are part of the CPD. The Federalist points out that the board members are of an older generation and not contemporary to current politics as re-cast in the Obama/Trump era. The current website lists “deceased” presidents as on the board: Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. This leaves Obama, Bush, and Carter on the board. Bill Clinton is not listed as part of the board. The number of financial sponsors for the debates has tended to shrink but the debates have emerged as an important national conversation on politics. This adds to the growing concern that the CPD is not the non-partisan promise it aspires to uphold in its public declarations.
A fundamental reconsideration of the format design of all debates should yield the following improvements: 1) longer opening statements for candidates taken from time formerly consumed by journalistic commentators, 2) cross examination periods — perhaps two minutes — directed by candidates, 3) turning off microphones when it is not a candidate’s turn to speak, 4) abolition of split screen broadcast of candidate reactions, 5) truncated topic announcement and immediate candidate response, and 6) campaign agreed upon and/or true public topic generation. The presidential debates have emerged into an important national and even international tradition. Debate is our ideal human tool for resolving differences nonviolently. Reforms to presidential debating in the United States represent one of the most important signals the nation can send to the world on a contest aimed at electing the most powerful person on the planet. As a nation, we can do far better than what CPD provided for all of us on Tuesday night September 29 in the first presidential debate.
Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor in the Dedman School of Humanities and Science and director of debate and speech programs at Southern Methodist University. He has served in consultative capacities for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. State Department in Rwanda, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Center. His latest book with Lexington books, entitled Debate as Global Pedagogy: Rwanda Rising, examines the powerful positive role debate plays in ending the pattern of genocidal violence established in the 20th century.