NBC/MSNBC has announced its moderators for the back-to-back Democratic presidential debates on June 26-27: Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Díaz-Balart. The announcement explained, "Holt will moderate the first hour, with Guthrie and Diaz-Balart appearing alongside him; Holt will also appear in the second hour, with Todd and Maddow moderating." In short, each night will have no fewer than 15 people: 10 candidates and five questioners. This is not a setup likely to produce coherent, substantive conversation.
Certainly, there are things that can make it worse. Under no circumstances should moderators spend a nanosecond asking the candidates to play pundit. ("Why do you think you can win the nomination? What's your path?") Such questions tell us nothing about the candidates' ideas, and frankly, are unhelpful to voters in deciding among the contenders.
Also, please no "say something nice" questions. These are now trite and elicit no useful information. Avoid asking questions on which they all agree (e.g. "Should President Donald Trump be impeached?"). Finally, do not take up more than a few seconds on questions. That's right, seconds. With 10 candidates, time is scarce! Moderators should aim to be invisible, maximizing candidates' share of the talking.
What should these candidates be asked? Here are some questions to get us started:
• Since Trump enacted tariffs or threatened to enact tariffs, have you changed your views on trade restrictionism? How, specifically, would you address trade issues with China?
• How would you describe the situation on the border with Mexico? What would you do to address it?
• As Republicans oppose large domestic spending programs and tax hikes and deny climate change, how would you implement your agenda?
• What experience do you have in passing significant, bipartisan legislation?
• You favor a commission to study reparations for African Americans. What about Native Americans? Other oppressed minorities?
• What is wrong with the Affordable Care Act as it is, and how would you change it?
• What has Trump done wrong on North Korea, and what would you do differently?
• We have 7 million unfilled jobs. Why? And what, if anything, needs to be done in response?
• What tax hikes and revenue cuts would you use to address the $22 trillion debt?
• How, specifically, would you address lagging productivity?
• How do we “end long wars” without endangering U.S. security?
• Have race relations gotten worse, and what would you do about that?
• What legislation or executive orders are needed to prevent a recurrence of the conduct described in the Mueller report?
What is critical is that moderators interject if the candidate is not answering the question or misstates facts in egregious ways. (That said, not every misstatement can be corrected, or the contenders wouldn't have much time given the two-hour time frame and the number of candidates.) Most important, moderators should cut short whataboutism. We get enough of that from Republicans.
We hope the higher polling/donor threshold that goes into effect in September pares the field down to a manageable size. Until then, moderators should try to ferret out what these candidates think, how they plan on accomplishing their aims and what skills they would bring to the job.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.