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Don’t cancel the debates, fix them


As a nation, we are all recovering from the disaster that was the first presidential ‘debate.’ Despite his best effort, moderator Chris Wallace was steamrolled by waves of insults, acrimony and incomprehensible cross-talk. Now Facebook is filled with people calling on the future debates to be cancelled. We think the answer is to fix the debates, not to cancel them.

Several weeks ago we wrote that “it is essential to reimagine these televised encounters to make them more compelling, fair and relevant.” So before the next disastrous encounter between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, it is time to do exactly that: reimagine the debates.

We previously argued that the debates should be reformatted — and recalibrated — so that both candidates would have an equal and fair chance to make their case and the voters could get a clearer understanding of their choices. After watching the 90-minutes of chaos under Wallace’s hapless moderation, we believe even more strongly that any future debates need to have stronger referees and better rule enforcement.

President Trump advocated eloquently for more “law and order” and challenged former Vice President Biden to do the same. Let’s take his statement at face value and apply “law and order” to the debates themselves. Here are three essential reforms that will accomplish that goal:

Require both candidates to personally endorse the ground rules — on camera — at the start of the debate. It is not enough that Republican and Democratic presidential staff have agreed to the ground rules off-camera. The debate should not start until both candidates have sworn to honor some agreed-upon rules. Breaking the rules is bad enough; breaking rules you have pledged to follow is even worse. Before the first question is asked, the ground rules must be affirmed by both candidates. Honoring the rules is practicing “law and order” when it counts.

Give control of the microphones to the moderators. Imagine a football or basketball game if the referees’ whistle was ignored. The game would fall apart. Similarly, if a candidate can violate time limits repeatedly and without consequence and interrupt his adversary with impunity, chaos is inevitable. The rule-breaker is rewarded, and the rule-follower suffers. Since a candidate’s word is no longer enough, the only way to ensure that time agreements are honored is for the moderator to be empowered to enforce them.

Include professionally trained moderators, not just television personalities. Referees and umpires in high-stakes sports events are trained professionals. Moderators of presidential debates should be as well. Chris Wallace is a respected journalist, on both sides of the aisle. He told people before the debate that his goal was to have people wonder who the moderator was. Instead he was sucked into the vortex, to the point where the president said, I guess I’m debating both of you. There is a class of professionally trained women and men who have a better skill set for dealing with these chaotic situations. They have the added benefit of not being affiliated with a network and not being worried about their ‘journalistic reputation.’ Only a skilled professional can ensure a fair game.

“Law and order” is obviously so central to our way of life that voters and candidates should both take it seriously. One way to judge whether a candidate is serious is if, when standing together in front of 100 million Americans, they will honor the debate rules to which they have agreed.

After Tuesday’s debacle, it is imperative that the Commission on Presidential Debates makes major changes before another one begins; otherwise, the calls to eliminate debates will drown out those who still want to see the candidates discuss their differences on policy. The tired format we saw Tuesday night simply doesn’t work anymore. According to the often-cited definition, “crazy” is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

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 chaos Chris Wallace Commission on Presidential Debates Debate Discussion moderator Donald Trump Joe Biden Presidential Debate

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