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Presidential Debate Commission needs reform … or disbanding

Presidential Debate Commission needs reform … or disbanding

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.



About The Author

Larry Horist

So,there‘tis… The opinions, perspectives and analyses of Larry Horist Larry Horist is a businessman, conservative writer and political strategist with an extensive background in economics and public policy. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman. He has served as a consultant to the Nixon White House and travelled the country as a spokesman for President Reagan’s economic reforms. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress. Horist has lectured and taught courses at numerous colleges and universities, including Harvard, Northwestern, DePaul universities, Hope College and his alma mater, Knox College. He has been a guest on hundreds of public affairs talk shows, and hosted his own program, “Chicago In Sight,” on WIND radio. Horist was a one-time candidate for mayor of Chicago and served as Executive Director of the City Club of Chicago, where he led a successful two-year campaign to save the historic Chicago Theatre from the wrecking ball. An award-winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He is praised by readers for his style, substance and sense of humor. According to one reader, Horist is the “new Charles Krauthammer.” He is actively semi-retired in Boca Raton, Florida where he devotes his time to writing. So, there ‘tis is Horist’s signature sign off.


  1. Ronald Dunne

    These so-called “debates” are not debates at all, which anyone who took debate classes in middle or high school knows. Who sets up these media-run events? They should be non-partisan, but obviously they are not. Either something must change or they should be ended. Surprised that the Trump campaign put up with the rigged format of these recent events.

    • CT

      I have found Trump has destroyed the debate program. He now claims everything and everyone is against him just to make his follows believe he is a good guy. When he failed to pay contractors for work they did, destroying lives I have no use for such a person he cares for Trump. He wants to keep the white house to have an income. If he paid his debts ($90) million dollars he would be homeless.

      • Connie

        He wants to keep the Whotw House to have an income? How is he going to do that since he donates his presidential salary to charities! When he is done serving our country he will go back to work as a businessman. However, take a look at the Obama’s and Bidens. Homes worth millions….for people who have done nothing more than serve in government for years. They are still getting their kick backs.

  2. Edward Durham

    Debates now dam joke, very unprofessional, disgrace.

  3. Cilia

    If they can’t be fair then disband them. The format for the entire process should be fair to both sides. Have equal number of conservative and liberal moderators. Put each name in a sealed envelope. Place the names in two separate bins, the liberals pick from the conservative bin and the conservative picks from the liberal bin half of the number needed for the debates.
    Then the committee sets the rules that Can Not be changed for the entire debate cycle. Then each side picks a moderator and they pair up for each debate.
    No rigging the debate because no one knows which moderator is going to present a question.
    One debate should be a real town hall debate. Questionnaires place their question in a basket and the moderators will select one at a time and both candidates will give their response and then debate among themselves without interruptions from the referee(moderator).
    I know there are those that will say this is childish but since the adults don’t know how to play by the rules, you must make them plain and simple so even a 5 year old understands.

  4. CT

    I find the debates a joke. They prove nothing. To hear a person downgrading another is not a person I would support.

    • Connie

      So you don’t vote? They all do it to each other. The Governor’s race in Utah is the first I can say I have seen opposing candidates appear in an advertisement together saying they have different policy positions, but they want to bring civility back to politics. I like what they say, but…..good luck with that!

  5. David Barron

    As far as time goes, the event should be run like a Chess Match with a timer. When the timer is stopped the microphone is also cut off. Total time is recorded and displayed. Time outside the agreed window is also displayed in red. As far as the moderator goes, the question should just pop up in front of the candidate on a screen and be shown on TV at the same time. The moderator does nothing. 15 seconds after the allotted time the live microphone is automatically cut off.

  6. Alan

    In my opinion there should be two debate hosts. One picked by each side. Throw the mute buttons away and let the candidates talk about and to each other. This year has been a pathetic disaster. Having all of the hosts representing the same special interests is ridicules In fact the “special commission” should be eliminated. .

    • Connie

      Defund the Commission!

  7. Dan Tyree

    CT your statement about Trump keeping the White House is a joke. You need to get your head out of your ass. And we don’t need a debate commission. Two people should talk about their differences without others chiming in. So go ahead and vote for retard joe and his token. But Trump will eat Biden’s lunch when the voting is over.

  8. porterv

    Just get rid of the debate commission. It is worse than worthless. Let the campaigns negotiate terms for the debate among themselves, and agree on moderators. I can think of all kind of great potential fair moderators. Impossible to come up with anyone worse than what we’ve seen this election.


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