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Disrupting the presidential debates

Before Vice President Biden and President Trump face each other for their first presidential debate on Sept. 29, we think it is essential to reimagine these televised encounters to make them more compelling, fair and relevant.

Both of us have spent our careers facilitating public and private meetings, often with those who came from different perspectives. With some fairly simple steps, these “debates” could be reformatted and recalibrated so that both candidates would have an equal and fair chance to make their case — and the voters would get a clearer understanding of their choices.

By all accounts, one of the major reasons previous debates have been so flawed was because candidates repeatedly talked over each other. Interruptions were the norm. Those who follow the rules are repeatedly punished by those who don’t. The moderators, who are television personalities not trained facilitators, are constantly overpowered by any candidate who refuses to follow any semblance of rules of decorum.

Here are five specific innovations that can improve the debate process in real time.

  1. Establish clear ground rules. At the beginning of each debate, the moderators should establish clear ground rules and have the candidates agree to them on camera. This will allow the moderators to actually control the conversation because the candidates themselves have publicly pledged to honor them. Just as sporting events have rules and refs, so should debates for the highest office in the land. If the potential “leader of the free world” will not honor basic ground rules for civility, who will?
  1. Use professionally trained moderators. It is clear from this cycle’s experience that media personalities are not up to the task of controlling these conversations. They were regularly, and embarrassingly, overwhelmed by assertive candidates. The questions asked can be generated in advance from both the media and the public, using social media to democratize the process — but the conversation itself should be guided by professionally trained and politically savvy moderators.
  1. Alter the physical setting. Two podiums lined up in opposition to each other only encourages the perspective of battle and conflict. A better setting would have the two candidates seated around a table with the moderators. This would inspire the candidates, and the moderators, to be more personal and conversational.
  1. Inspire moments that promote reflection. Ask unexpected and unanticipated questions that would offer a break from endless, narcissistic, “here’s-my-website” self-promotion. Find ways to force the candidates to move beyond their rehearsed and memorized talking points. For example, ask: “As our nation struggles to recover from COVID-19 and an economic crisis, what are the areas of everyday life in America that you think will need to be reinvented?”
  1. Create a real-time feedback loop. If a candidate fails to answer a question, according to a jointly chosen, non-partisan panel of fact-checkers, an icon would pop up at the bottom of the screen that signifies the fact-checker’s concern. Then the moderator could follow up. It would make using sloppy facts or inaccurate claims much more costly.

As this race enters its next stage, this is the moment to renew and revitalize this outdated aspect of our election process. Both citizens and candidates alike should demand change. After all, we live in the age of disruption. If anything needs to be disrupted, it is this obsolete format.

Chris Gates and Mark Gerzon are the co-directors of Philanthropy Bridging Divides. Gates previously served as president of the National Civic League and executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. Follow him on Twitter @Gates5280. Gerzon is the president of Mediators Foundation and author of “The Reunited States of America: How to Bridge the Partisan Divide.”

Tags 2020 presidential debates Debate Debate Moderators Discussion moderator Donald Trump Joe Biden

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