May 15, 2024

Will We Get Better Presidential Debates This Year?

President Biden has challenged Donald Trump to participate in presidential debates this year, and the former president has accepted. Given that Mr. Trump has avoided debating his Republican challengers, it has not been clear that he would agree to debate Mr. Biden. Today’s news is therefore encouraging. Details of any debates will need to be negotiated. Neither side has been satisfied in the past with decisions made by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which apparently will have no part in structuring the 2024 presidential debates.

The Biden team has articulated its desired ground rules:

  • Two debates: in June and September. This is apparently acceptable to Team Trump, but Mr. Trump has expressed a desire for more debates.
  • There should be no live audience. Mr. Trump has spoken of wanting a large venue, presumable with a large audience.
  • The only participants are to be the Republican and Democratic candidates.
  • Only broadcast networks that have hosted recent debates (CNN, ABC News, Telemundo, and CBS News) should be eligible to host the first debate. Apparently, the same restriction has not been proposed for the second debate. It likely should be.
  • The moderator should be chosen from a network’s “regular personnel.”
  • There should be firm time limits on candidate responses, and the candidates should be allotted equal time.
  • A candidate’s microphone should only be live when it is his turn to speak.

We may get more effective and useful presidential debates this year, but, when the presidential camps get down to serious negotiations, that goal may prove elusive. Donald Trump would certainly like a large, preferably partisan, audience, and may not take kindly to the concept of losing his microphone for any reason. That Mr. Trump has said he would like more debates is a bit surprising—he is not good at actual debate—but this may be a negotiating position to facilitate horse trading involving other matters.

I have long advocated some of the ground rules Mr. Biden is promoting—widely available debates, no audience, and time limits enforced by controlling candidate microphones. (See my October 29, 2015, post “Suggestions for Presidential Debates.”) The presence of an audience is particularly problematic. Historically, audiences told to keep quiet do not, in fact, do so. Moreover, it is virtually impossible to assemble a non-partisan audience in which everyone exercises the same level of self-control. The debates are for the American people, not for a selected debate audience.

Most important, and most likely to be fought by the Trump camp, is the idea of time-limited speech enforced by administratively controlled microphones. The former president exhibits limited self-control in general and virtually none in past debates. Clearly, the Biden campaign wants to avoid Mr. Trump’s garrulousness and his obnoxious habit of interrupting other participants. I discussed this issue in the aforementioned essay. I revisited the issue in “A Suggested Tool for Debate Moderators.”)

It has often been noted that debating skill, or whatever skill is needed for the so-called presidential debates, is not a particularly important capability needed by the President of the United States. Readers may be interested in a very different debate format I once proposed in “A Different Kind of Presidential Candidate Debate.” That essay was oriented toward debates leading up to the selection of a presidential candidate, but some of the ideas could usefully inform the contests between actual candidates.

Perhaps, we will get better presidential debates this year. But perhaps not.

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