Last night the American people were treated to the strangest debate in history. As a measure of just how strange it was, in the days to follow the question will be not who won the debate, or how it helped the race. The question will be, should there be another debate?
For 90 minutes President Trump repeatedly interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden when it was his turn to speak. Biden, clearly prepared for something like this, also kept on talking, occasionally turning to the audience who he hoped was sharing his dismay at Trump’s behavior. Early on he looked directly into the camera and said “Folks, do you have any idea what this clown’s doing?” A few minutes later he turned to Trump and said, “Will you shut up, man?” And again, “Will he just shush for a moment?” The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News finally tried to restore some order, pointing out, “Mr. President you’ve been doing most of the interrupting.”
Biden was also into the game, frequently talking over Trump. He had no other choice. To stand back would be to appear old, weak and confused—the “sleepy Joe” that Trump wants him to be. And so, for a painfully long 90 minutes we were subjected to a debate that was incoherent. No doubt Chris Wallace will come in for some serious Monday-morning quarterbacking for his inability to enforce the agreed-upon rules, but I’m not sure anyone could have contained a highly caffeinated incumbent and a challenger with a solid lead whose only objective was to show vigor.
No one’s mind will be changed by Trump’s behavior. Many Americans, especially women, think he’s a bully and his supporters love him for telling it like it is. In these situations—President Carter versus Ronald Reagan in 1980, President George H.W. Bush versus Bill Clinton in 1992—attitudes towards the incumbent are fixed. All the challenger has to do is prove to be an acceptable replacement. By contributing to (but not starting) a totally chaotic debate, Biden probably achieved his goals.
Here’s the most interesting question of the evening: will there be another debate? The candidates are not likely to pull the plug; whoever does will fear looking weak. How about the Commission on Presidential Debates? They probably won’t either—after all, they exist to put these on. But there is a solution, a simple but elegant one that was tweeted by my old pal Jeff Greenfield during the debate.
I think –IF there's a next debate–the moderator has to be able to cut off the mic of whoever is interrupting.
— Jeff Greenfield (@greenfield64) September 30, 2020
That simple step—turning the mic on and off according to who is supposed to be speaking—would allow the next debates to go on with a modicum of decorum. We might actually be able to hear what the candidates are saying. The split screen could still allow the candidates to laugh, smirk, shake their heads in outrage, or whatever. But at least we would be able to hear what the candidates had to say, a modest improvement over the most awful presidential debate ever.