facebook-pixel

Robert Gehrke: After that debate, can we come up with some fixes? Or should we even bother?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Instead of watching the presidential debate, I decided to catch the wild-card game between Cleveland and New York.

It was another post-season meltdown for Cleveland. My team fell behind just four pitches into the first inning and it got worse from there.

Disgusted, I flipped over to the debate. Even more disgusted by the debate I flipped it back to the baseball game and went back-and-forth between the two travesties.

Since then I have watched most of the debate (in small doses) and, if I had to pick a winner, I’d say it was anyone who just decided not to watch.

The loser of the evening had to be President Donald Trump, who failed to reinvigorate his campaign, but did reinforce the notion that he is a bully and a blowhard. And he produced the most memorable moment of the evening when, rather than condemn the white supremacist Proud Boys, he told them to “stand back and stand by.”

In their private chat rooms, the Proud Boys reportedly considered it a tacit endorsement of their violence, called it “historic,” and said it was bringing in a flood of new recruits.

Beyond the damage Trump did to his own chances, he did nothing to help the prospects for the Trump loyalist candidates in tough races, like Burgess Owens in Utah’s 4th District or any of the half dozen Republican candidates facing tough Senate fights.

The bigger loser, unfortunately, is the entire process. Anyone who has a passing interest in politics and might have been undecided had to walk away disgusted with all of it.

Dan Balz, the legendary Washington Post political reporter, who has covered presidential politics for more than five decades, called the display an “unseemly shoutfest” unlike anything anyone has seen — beneath the dignity of the office and a display that spoke to the tone of current American politics.

Wednesday morning the Commission on Presidential Debates, probably still nursing a hangover, issued this statement: “Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates … The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”

Surprisingly, they managed to put out the entire statement out without being interrupted.

There’s no reason to think they’ll listen to me but, as usual, I have all the answers. Here are the changes they should make.

Adopt a new, hybrid format

I was a little skeptical, but one of the best debates I’ve seen was the Republican gubernatorial primary debate back in June sponsored by KUTV and the Pioneer Park Coalition.

Rather than putting candidates toe-to-toe for the duration, each was interviewed separately, taking turns answering substantive questions by the moderators, then the last half was a more standard back-and-forth exchange.

It’s a bit of an unconventional format, but proved valuable in that it let the candidates articulate their views and also provided for some verbal sparring.

Let the moderator moderate

Chris Wallace is a pro, but he never had a chance to maintain order in what devolved into an embarrassing street fight.

There were, according to one count, 93 interruptions between the two candidates during the course of the 90-minute debate, more than 70 of them Trump cutting off Biden or Wallace and Wallace without any real way to restore order.

Many pundits and those on social media are proposing giving the moderator the ability to turn off or at least turn down the microphone of the interruptor. That seems like it would be a minimal tool that could let the moderator restore order and remain above the fray, without having to try to shout over candidates talking over one another.

Give candidates more time if they are interrupted repeatedly

This is kind of a no-brainer. But one candidate talking over another doesn’t just take time, it disrupts the flow of thought.

When they occur, the moderator should have the prerogative to restore any lost time and penalize the interrupting speaker by giving the opposing candidate up to an additional 30 seconds of uninterrupted time to complete a thought. If it continues, deduct time from the candidate who repeatedly interrupts.

Real-time fact-checking

Many media outlets already do near-real-time fact-checking. In our current climate, even facts can be controversial, but it would serve the public to have a panel of nonpartisan experts provide a scroll of fact-checks or clarifications as near to real time as possible.

It’s tricky to do in practice, but it could free the candidates from feeling compelled to argue about every misstatement and give the public valuable information regarding the candidates' grasp of the facts and their truthfulness.

There is a larger question that needs to be answered, though: Should we even bother?

Ideally, debates are valuable. They show us a candidate’s mastery of the issues, ability to communicate a vision, to think on his or her feet and have, over the years, produced some politically pivotal moments.

But fixing the format on the fly will be challenging — the Trump campaign is already accusing the commission of “moving the goalposts” and Biden of “working the refs.” And expecting anything better from the candidates, particularly Trump, is probably naive.

It’s too bad, because this election hinges on important issues and there are major distinctions between the candidates, differences that could conceivably be on display in a well-run, somewhat controlled debate.

The next debate, between the vice presidential candidates, will be held at the University of Utah on Tuesday and should be more civilized. It also offers an opportunity for a test run of some of these ideas.

But if the format can’t be fixed, we have to consider whether there is anything to be gained from another display like the one we saw Tuesday night.

Return to Story