March 5, 2016

A Suggested Tool for Debate Moderators

Back in October, I wrote about ways I thought our political debates could be improved. (See “Suggestions for Presidential Debates.”) Since then, debates among Republican candidates have become increasingly bizarre, crude, and dysfunctional. More than anything, Republican debates have become chaotic. Moderators have lost control of the dialogue, and the candidates have taken to simultaneously tossing angry insults at one another.

Mute the micOne of the ideas I offered last fall to improve debates was
4. Enforce time limits. The time limits for candidate responses to questions are never aggressively enforced. This is particularly irritating when a candidate goes on and on without answering the question asked. … If the rules of the debate allow for one-minute answers, for example, a candidate’s microphone should be cut off by a studio technician after 60 seconds. Presidents, after all, have to be able to use their time wisely, as they get no more of it than the rest of us.
Since I made that suggestion, the problem with debates has become less one of candidates talking too long than one of candidates speaking out-of-turn and talking (or yelling) over others. Such behavior has made the “debates” entertaining—in the same way that mud wrestling is entertaining—and has revealed something of the character of the would-be presidential nominees. It has not revealed much about the philosophy or program priorities of the debate participants, however.

Clearly Mr. Trump and Senators Rubio and Cruz cannot be trusted to conduct polite discourse without additional discipline. Were they a bit more civilized and less inclined to act like kindergarteners, a talking stick and an occasional word from a moderator might engender more enlightening and comprehensible exchanges.

As it is, Republican debates really require aggressively controlled microphones. The moderators should have buttons at their desk, one for each candidate and one for themselves. When a button is pressed, all microphones except that of the indicated speaker should be muted. If a candidate speaks out-of-turn, whatever is said will not be heard over the air. If a moderator needs to cut off a candidate for whatever reason—God only knows what new outrage might present itself—a single button will silence the offending debater and give the moderator the floor.

Would the candidates agree to using such a mechanism? Why give them a choice?

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