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We have to improve the presidential debates before 2024

We have to do better than Thursday night's debate next time around. So let's make presidential debates worth our time to watch in 2024.
Image: Moderator watches over the debate stage which is divided into red and blue colored overlays. Scribbled check marks and crosses surround the silhouettes of the two debaters on stage.
Anjali Nair / Bloomberg via Getty Images

We could go through a play-by-play of how President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden fared in this latest debate — the who won, who lost, how will this affect turnout of it all. But instead, let's focus on how we can keep ourselves from ever having to live through a set of debates like this again.

Let's begin with a basic fact: Presidential debates are by and large terrible, and they've been terrible for a long time. This isn't to say they're "boring" to the average viewer — they absolutely are — but there's no need for a debate to turn into a reality show, no matter how hard the president has tried to transform them into a political version of a "WrestleMania" plotline. No, this is about their basic function, which can be framed as: "Do these events convey information to the American public that's worth their time?" As of right now, the answer is "no ... but we have to have them anyway."

And presidential campaigns know this. For three decades, political advisers and debate coaches have spent hundreds of collective hours figuring out how to game the system to avoid answering at all costs. White House strategic communications director Alyssa Farah said as much Thursday morning:

As it stands, the debate format has been tweaked slightly each cycle — the moderators, typically journalists of renown, get to choose the topics and have some leeway when it comes to allocating time between the candidates. But if the debates still manage to feel stale, that mostly falls on two groups: the Commission on Presidential Debates and the presidential campaigns.

Since 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates has organized these quadrennial showdowns, having been empowered by the major parties after a disastrous string of last-minute debates in the early 1980s, and it has slowly taken on more of the logistics ever since. On average, the members of the commission have been doing this for a very long time. One of the co-chairs, Frank Fahrenkopf, has been in that position since the commission was founded more than 30 years ago. He and former Co-Chair Paul G. Kirk were chairing the Republican and Democratic national committees, respectively, at the time. Along with a third co-chair, Dorothy Ridings, the rest of the board of directors is filled out with nine other elder statesmen and women — including 92-year-old former Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton N. Minow.

The CPD, though, is just the arbitrator, not the deciding power. The camps of both the Democratic and the Republican nominees need to agree to the rules of each verbal sparring match, signing off on detailed memos like this one from 2004. Each side wants to prevent the potential that its will nominee be embarrassed, often leading these memos to limit the ability of the moderators to press the candidates and make them answer questions.

The chances of substantive changes by the next election cycle seems slim. The last time the CPD made a major change was in 2000, when it instituted a rule to box out third-party campaigns, limiting general election debates to candidates polling at 15 percent or higher. But 20 years later, changes are needed, and I'd humbly like to pitch a new way to think about how things should go next time around.

First, I propose that we hold three debates ahead of Election Day — but the town hall format, which has often been used in the second of the three debates, has outlived its usefulness. In theory, town halls are great, and they give the candidates a chance to answer questions presented by actual undecided voters. In practice, however, the agreements tend to prevent any true spontaneity. That's seen in the 2012 memo among the CPD, Obama for America and Romney for President, which was leaked after a contentious moment between Mitt Romney and moderator Candy Crowley. So, better to do away with the pretense altogether.

Instead, the debates should revert to a previous tradition and have one night each about domestic and foreign policy. For the last two election cycles, in particular, debates have tended to cover both each night, overweighting domestic affairs, despite the many to-do list items candidates rattle off, many of which fall in Congress' wheelhouse. This effectively shunts foreign policy to the side, even though most of the job description under the Constitution deals with international and military matters. The third topic I'd propose, using the time freed up from nixing the town hall format, would cover the most pressing issue the world faces: climate change.

The length of each debate would stay the same — 90 minutes, no commercial breaks, just long enough to hold (most) people's attention. The first half-hour would feature the traditional set of questions about what a candidate would do in office: your run-of-the-mill "What would you say to Americans who've lost their health insurance?" and "How would your administration address the threat of white supremacists?"

These are the questions politicians love — usually open-ended and rarely directly answered. They also provide the clearest avenue to dunk on one's opponent, drawing a distinction between candidates' proposals that can be beneficial to voters.

Round two, though, should consist of nothing but factual questions. Candidates could be given subtopics in advance to prepare, but in, for example, the foreign policy debate, expect to hear questions like "What is the current trade deficit with China?" or even "Define what the trade deficit is." No trick questions, no gotchas — just information that presidents should be able to explain to the average American. Consider it an expanded, executive branch version of this question that Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa got asked during her debate with her challenger, Theresa Greenfield, last week:

Moreover, as the candidates answer, the correct answers should be on display for people at home, with citations, and to the audience in the room. VH1 managed to do this with the ancient TV show "Pop-Up Video" in 1996. There's no reason we can't provide this kind of information to viewers in real time.

Round three would then move on to an open debate period, with one broad topic — for example, in the domestic policy debate, "What should the relationship be between the federal government and individuals?" These are the sort of high-level ideas that candidates rarely engage each other over. Moderators would be empowered to keep things on track, including, yes, keeping the ability to mute the candidates' microphones to prevent mass chaos from breaking out. They'd also be authorized to rule whether statements were germane.

I can already hear the protests, that the decision of who should be the next leader of the free world shouldn't come down to little more than who knows the most trivia, a high-stakes game of "Jeopardy!" And yes, that is exactly my point — the aim of the debates is, in theory, to educate the audience, not just about the differences between the candidates, but also about what they want to do for the country and the electorate. Incorporating all three parts of the proposed format would allow for that, as well as clue voters in on who has the knowledge base the job requires.

There is admittedly the risk that the debate's sponsors and moderators could place their thumbs too heavily on the scale, when it should be up to the voters to make their own judgments. Before going on, I'd be remiss not to note, though, that NBC News' Kristen Welker was fantastic Thursday night, controlling the course of the evening and refusing to let the candidates steamroll her. But moderators have traditionally left any corrections of incorrect information — and there was plenty of that last night — up to candidates' opponents. Letting moderators serve as live fact-checkers is anathema to most political campaigns.

"Those candidates are up there to fact-check each other," Romney campaign lawyer Ben Ginsberg told NBC News in 2016. "This debate is not about the moderators or enhancing their ratings."

Even before Trump came on the scene with his mission to eviscerate factuality, we'd gotten used to candidates' winging it on the debate stage. Even as the pace of questioning leaves little opportunity for follow-ups and dialogue, campaigns have insisted on muzzling moderators. These journalists, who are all too often shredded on Twitter, are the experts in the room — they know the topics and should be able to call balls and strikes as they see them. And the American people deserve to know when they're being misled. This proposed format would be a compromise, not taking away time from the candidates to verbally call out errors but giving more leeway for the moderator to direct the conversation.

A lot of this would depend on whether the CPD feels truly empowered to take on the campaigns in 2024. For that, the commission needs to bring in new members and voices, ones who are willing to challenge the orthodoxy and submission to the campaigns that have become baked into the process. The CPD needs to press the campaigns and the national committees early in the election cycle, ahead of the summer's conventions, informing them that if they'd like to give up the free airtime of the debates, that's on them, should they not accept the changes.

If the Democrats and the Republicans decide that they'd rather not face the scrutiny this format would open them up to — potentially ditching the CPD for a new sponsor — that's their choice. But the commission's members should also realize that they hold the cards, and they should be willing to tell the voters loudly and forcefully which standards the candidates weren't willing to meet. If we're going to have debates, let's make them worth our time.

While you let the anger at having to think about 2024 already fade out of your system, here are some links to start your morning:

  • Politico: Ryan Lizza spent two weeks inside the Trump campaign's bubble and says it's even weirder on the inside than we think.
  • Foreign Affairs: Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders' top foreign policy adviser (and, disclaimer, a former co-worker of mine), argues that U.S. foreign policy has never really recovered from the war on terrorism.

While the first and best thing Americans can do for the cause of human freedom, democracy, and dignity is to defend those values at home, they still have considerable tools and influence with which they can support those values around the world. An honest accounting of the war on terror will make the United States far more effective in doing so.

A genuine reckoning with the post-9/11 period would spur not a U.S. withdrawal from the world but rather deeper engagement with it. The main challenges of today—the coronavirus pandemic and climate change foremost among them—are shared. The United States must commit to a sustained multilateral approach to meet these challenges, rather than continuing to unilaterally abrogate and undermine the very norms and conventions that it helped to establish.

  • Reuters: National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe is reportedly hustling to declassify a document that disputes reports of Russia's interference in the 2016 election. I, for one, am shocked.
  • BuzzFeed News: I recommend that you not be eating breakfast when you read this story about Sen. Mitch McConnell's hand. Sorry.
  • NBC News: And finally, this article from Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny — "Inside the campaign to 'pizzagate' Hunter Biden" — got Tucker Carlson so mad before it was published that he spent an entire segment attacking Brandy on his show Tuesday night. That's a better endorsement than I could possibly give it, so go ahead and read it now.