It was almost universally termed a disaster. It was a new low in civility as one candidate called the other a clown and told him to “shut up.” While the other candidate constantly interrupted his opponent and attempted to bully him into silence. The moderator repeatedly admonished President Donald Trump to stop interrupting and be civil, but to no avail. Former Vice President Joe Biden sought to respect the limits both campaigns agreed to but found himself debating an opponent who completely ignored those limits.
But we must work to make sure this debate is an aberration — that it does not become the new normal.
How can we do this?
One way is to not nominate candidates who are uncivil. This is likely to be the last set of presidential candidate debates Trump participates in. That alone may return debates to civility. However, future candidates may attempt to mimic his style. Voters who want to be informed, rather than merely entertained, should think twice about voting for, and therefore encouraging, a candidate who uses such tactics.
Within the debate itself, steps must be taken to make debates civil and informative once again.
Set the rules; don’t negotiate them. If the campaigns get to negotiate the rules, the rules will favor the most obstinate candidate. Instead, establish the rules well before there are any nominees.
Penalize candidates who break the rules. The moderator could automatically give one minute extra to the candidate who is interrupted and also remove response time for that question from the candidate who interrupts.
Turn off the microphone of the candidate not speaking. The candidate’s mic only comes on when that candidate is given time by the moderator to speak. Interruptions would not be heard.
Give the public more of a role in the debates. No debate should be just a three-way exchange. It should include questions from regular voters. Candidates might not be so rude to each other if they have a set of voters facing them or even if they have a voter talking to them via technology.
Also, voters tend to ask better questions than moderators. Often moderators ask “inside baseball” questions that don’t have much relevance to the lives of average citizens. The moderator’s role primarily should be to follow up on the voter’s question. For example, if the voter asks the candidates what they will do about health care and the candidates don’t answer the question, the moderator should ask a specific follow-up question to help the voter obtain that answer.
Also, questions should be focused on character and thoughtfulness as well as policy issue positions. They should explore how a candidate reflects on ethical issues. Also, they should get at how a candidate thinks and gets to the conclusions she or he reaches.
Some have criticized debates as unconnected to the realities of office. It is true that a president or governor doesn’t debate with others while governing. Even a U.S. senator or representative doesn’t engage in real debate on the floors of Congress. So, why should we place such emphasis on debates?
Studies consistently show that voters learn from debates. They glean information they do not get elsewhere. They also observe the candidates in response to one another. Civility, courtesy, capability to articulate their views are all clues voters learn about candidates, along with policy positions.
Many voters have made up their minds whom they will vote for. But for some voters, and particularly those who will tip the election, debates offer a shorthand way to become informed. Debates connect candidates to voters in a way that does not happen through media coverage or candidate advertising.
That only works if debates work. This year’s first presidential debate clearly didn’t. And if we don’t fix debates, the train wreck we saw Tuesday night may become the new normal. We can improve debates. We can make them useful to voters. It is not too late to do so.