While I have never sponsored a presidential debate, as executive director of the City Club of Chicago, I have organized a lot of political debates – for the Senate, House, governorships and big city mayors. Bringing two (or more) sides into agreement is a much more challenging process than one may think.
There is a myriad of issues to be decided – some significant and some seemingly rather petty. One time when I thought we had settled all the issues in a three-way Democrat mayoral debate between candidates Jane Byrne, Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley, I casually mentioned that the stage would have a back drop of a blue curtain. That led to another 24 hours of negotiation.
Harold Washington’s team objected. Seems a black candidate does not look good with a blue backdrop. Byrne and Daley did not want to look washed-out – as opposed to washed-up – against a white background. And no one liked red. We finally settled on gold.
Each side is looking for advantage. Short candidates want a box to stand on. Their taller opponents object. Can they have notes – or take notes? And then there are all the rules that cover times allotted for answers, rebuttals and open debate – and a lot of disagreement over who asks the questions and how they are chosen.
Well … you get the idea. So, what about our current system that is governed by the Commission on Presidential Debates? It sucks.
It is difficult to imagine how a small group of supposedly intelligent people could come up with what we see on television these days. But then again, it is a committee – and it is as political as it can get.
Role of the press
The first mistake is who poses or screens the questions. Conventional wisdom suggests that it should always be members of the Fourth Estate. This means you get insider gotcha questions. You get leading questions in which the journalists open with setups – friendly if they like the candidate and hostile if they do not.
Journalists are playing on all sides of the event. They are in on the negotiations – including coverage rights. They participate in making the news – and then they cover their own event. There is almost never any media criticism of how their own journalists handled the event.
By way of comparison … I did not always win, but I usually tried to have a mix of representatives of major civic organizations and interest groups — and common folks in the audience to pose the questions. In those cases, the questions were less about the political game and more about real issues.
The moderator a referee
The situation gets worse when there is only one media moderator who oversees creating all the questions, arbitrarily determining time allotted to candidates and deciding when a candidate can respond. Even a tinge of personal bias on the part of such moderators creates a completely unfair format.
Under the new rules of presidential debates, moderators have too often become participants in the debate by challenging and rebutting the responses of a candidate they do not support. They can raise impromptu follow-up questions.
Lack of specific timing
According to the rules, candidates are supposed to be allotted specific times to respond to questions and to rebut – but the moderator can override those rules by deciding to give one candidate more time. The fact that Trump interrupted Biden more times than Biden interrupted Trump would not be the comparison if the rules were more formally established.
Vice President Pence was criticized for running over his time repeatedly, but unless you watched the debate with a stopwatch, you would not realize that Senator Harris actually had more speaking time than Pence. But that went largely unnoticed because the moderator did not blow the whistle on Harris as fast as she did for Pence.
I do not have a problem with switching microphones on only when the candidates are speaking during properly allotted time. I used to get a kick out of the old Ladies Press Corps dinners. When the speaker’s time had run out, the spotlight turned pink so the entire audience could know that time was up.
The Commission as the rule maker
The creation of the Commission on Presidential Debate in 1987 was the beginning of the end of great debates. In fact, the greatest debates in American history – between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas – were arranged by citizens without a role for government. The debates I ran were all negotiated and carried out without any role for any government or quasi-government entity.
Debates should be the result of a negotiated agreement between the candidates … period. The problem with having an “authority” to rule over the process was evident when the Commission decided to make the second presidential debate virtual without any consultation with the Trump campaign.
The presidential debates are bad – and increasingly irrelevant — because the Commission that runs them is too much part of the Washington establishment. It is arguable that they may be too philosophically biased even though it is ostensibly a bipartisan panel.
If the Commission is to continue to exist, it at least should reform its procedures and serve more as a platform for negotiations rather than another bureaucracy expanding its regulatory authority.
So, there ‘tis.