We’re all familiar with the old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law.”
Last week, we very well could be seeing a new maxim: hard debates make bad debates.
As I write this, the Commission on Presidential Debates is twisting and turning to find a way to return to debate normalcy in the wake of the train wreck precipitated when Donald Trump placed a Sherman tank on the tracks of the Tuesday event in Cleveland.
I was among the millions watching who shouted, “Kill his mic!” when The Donald was, well, The Donald, bullying his way over Joe Biden’s hapless attempts to address Chris Wallace’s questions.
As tempting as it may sound, killing the mic would be bad.
For starters, it won’t work with a guy like Trump, who has, does and will continue to play by his own rules.
As Wallace told The New York times Wednesday morning, a mic-less Trump would continue to disrupt the stage, yelling into his opponent’s mic and to the audience, bitching at the moderator and dominating the show.
Let’s be honest, we want a little tension in debates. Playing by the old high school debate-team rules might make for a decent intellectual exercise, but arguing the pros and cons of a particular issue isn’t what political debates are about.
Their purpose is to allow audiences, and particularly undecided voters, the opportunity to compare and contrast the candidates: Their knowledge, their wisdom, their ability to think on their feet, their ability to lead and to speak with clarity.
Good debates allow for one candidate to immediately challenge an opponent. Until last week, presidential candidates did interrupt from time to time but didn’t, mostly, dominate or attempt to take over the stage.
Good moderators allow for some sharp, impromptu exchanges that help delineate positions and keep each side honest, but also make for good television and yes, even allow candidates to condemn themselves with their own words. Lacking that, debates aren’t debates but rather, side-by-side interviews.
A string of uninterrupted two-minute answers to a string of political science questions would be a feckless exercise in redundancy. Who by now doesn’t know the basic positions of Biden and Trump?
Here in Colorado as moderators prepare for this week’s televised Senate between Cory Gardner and John Hickenlooper, here’s hoping they:
- Announce for all at the debate’s beginning the rules of the evening, making it clear that violators if necessary may be penalized by having to yield some of their time to their opponent.
- Allow for some give-and take. Let the candidates truly debate each other but be sure one side doesn’t dominate the other in terms of time.
- Do as good editors do and don’t get in the way of the story. If a spur of the moment exchange is healthy and productive, let it continue. Again, a little dust up can be beneficial.
- Ask the unexpected. Don’t be afraid to catch the candidates off guard.
- Be flexible.
- Prepare to take some heat. This is politics. No matter what you do somebody will be critical.
Dennis Ryerson is a former managing editor of The Denver Post and a long-time opinion writer and editor. As editor of The Des Moines Register, he moderated three nationally televised pre-Iowa caucus presidential debates.
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