WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's defiance of the rules that have guided presidential debates for more than 30 years has prompted the bipartisan commission that organizes the debates to vow there will be changes. It also has reignited discussion about the direction of political discourse in the United States.
Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, revealed by the president in a Friday tweet, has since raised questions about the likelihood that the next two presidential debates, and a vice-presidential debate scheduled for Wednesday, will proceed as planned. But as organizers consider how to move forward, they’ll do so bearing in mind bipartisan calls to adjust the debate structure.
Trump’s combative performance at last week's first presidential debate, at which he incessantly interrupted former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and tangled with the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, has sparked consideration of whether the 90-minute exchanges should be reconfigured to include real-time fact-checking and an option to mute candidates who speak over their allotted time.
The disruptive nature of the night prompted the Commission on Presidential Debates to call for changes.
The commission said in a statement that the debate "made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues."
Trump has pushed back on the idea, tweeting on Thursday: "Why would I allow the Debate Commission to change the rules for the second and third Debates when I easily won last time?"
The president’s assertions that he won came despite his own allies criticizing his performance as overly aggressive. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped prepare Trump for the debate, told ABC News Trump was "too hot" in his approach.
Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate historian and author of the book "Presidential Debates: Risky Business On the Campaign Trail," compared the debate to the vitriolic, sometimes violent, debates that occur in fledgling democracies.
"There are places where debates have really just degenerated into brawls," Schroeder said. "These are countries, mostly former republics in the Soviet Union countries, that do not have a tradition of democracy. … and so they're learning, they're kind of feeling their way through this, they're getting used to it. Here we are, the country that invented presidential debates, and have 250 years of democracy under our belt. I think that's what freaked everybody out so much … how in the world do we go from Kennedy and Nixon to this?"
John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first presidential candidates to square off in a nationally televised debate, in September 1960, and since then the format has evolved from the candidates simply fielding questions from journalists, without engaging one another, to the candidates fielding questions from one moderator or from audience members.
The second debate, scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, would be a town-hall format. Trump and Biden would field questions directly from undecided voters in the audience. The change in format could help lower the temperature, said John P. Koch, the director of debate at Vanderbilt University.
"It would be highly risky for a candidate to treat the average voter asking a question like Chris Wallace was treated in the last debate," Koch said. "Unless the candidate wants to assume a high-risk strategy, I would expect the candidates to engage with voters’ questions and let each other answer the questions."
The first presidential debate — marked by Trump taking aim at Biden’s son Hunter and Biden calling the president "a clown" and saying "shut up, man" — is somewhat of a reflection of the deep political polarization in our country, said Koch.
"We are less likely to have friends of opposing political affiliations," Koch said. "We are less likely in our daily lives to engage with media that does not confirm our views. What we call debates on news shows are often partisans just repeating talking points without considering or engaging their counterpart’s arguments. This is all to say as citizens we have limited models to show us how to engage in productive debates about serious issues. As a result, we stay in our political bubbles and stereotype those who are not in it. If we do talk to each other, we often yell. We talk over each other. We do not consider or listen to each other’s points. [The first debate] was just an extreme manifestation of a problem that has existed for a while now in our political culture. For the health of our representative democracy, we need to have better models of debate."
Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and a former network TV executive, said moderators should have the ability to mute the microphone of any candidate who speaks over their allotted time.
"Control of the microphones is a very big tool," said Lukasiewicz. "One of the oldest institutions of debate on the planet is the House of Commons in London, and there's a very strict rule … that when the speaker gets to his or her feet from the speaker's chair, everybody else in that chamber must sit down and be silent, and that extends to the prime minister and anybody else … it feels like the debates are going to need that kind of rule, when the moderators speak you must be quiet. If they control the microphones they can make that happen."
Asked about the option to cut off a candidate’s microphone, debate moderator Wallace told the New York Times on Wednesday: "As a practical matter, even if the president’s microphone had been shut, he still could have continued to interrupt, and it might well have been picked up on Biden’s microphone, and it still would have disrupted the proceedings in the hall."