Tuesday night’s presidential debate was shocking. Difficult to watch. A radical break with past debates and decorum.
Yet, as disheartening as it may have been for many Americans, it has served a purpose.
In 2004, I hosted a Democratic presidential primary debate on the campus of Marquette University. Over the past 10 years, I have hosted 16 televised debates in Wisconsin as part of a partnership between Marquette Law School and WISN-TV. They featured candidates for governor, the United States Senate, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Wisconsin attorney general, the Milwaukee County executive, and the mayor of Milwaukee.
For most of those 16 debates, we had the simplest ground rules. The contestants sat at a round table, about two feet apart, and had a conversation about the issues of the day. They were asked to answer questions succinctly and were told that they could speak to each other directly. They were told that in addition to asking questions, I would play the role of a traffic policeman. If the conversation started to get repetitive, I would move the discussion forward. Producers in the control room kept track of the time candidates had to speak, which was transmitted to me through my earpiece. This allowed us to make sure that both candidates had about the same time.
With such a small framework for our debates, there was always the possibility that things could go wrong. But while the conversations were often intense, with strong disagreements over political positions and heated exchanges, I can’t remember one that wasn’t largely civilian. This includes the final debate between Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett ahead of the 2012 recall election for governor. Wisconsin was in a political storm, but the candidates played by the rules.
But what happens when candidates don’t play by the rules? What should a moderator do?
Tuesday night we saw Chris Wallace deal with this issue in real time. He reminded candidates, especially President Donald Trump, that their campaigns agree on the ground rules of the debate. Like a referee in a boxing match, he tried to separate fighters who were fidgeting when they spoke to each other. He tried, with limited success, to keep candidates focused on the six topics selected for debate. But there wasn’t a lot that Wallace – one of the toughest questioners in his field – could do. The result was a debate heavy with insults and interruptions, and light on politics and problem-solving.
But I’m not here to criticize Wallace, as so many others were too keen to do. Unless you’ve been there, it might be wise to ask yourself a question: What would you have done differently?
There is already talk of making changes for future debates. A popular suggestion today is the use of a mute or “kill” button to essentially mute a candidate’s microphone when not supposed to speak. This approach has been used by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association in debates where a candidate has exceeded the time limit for a response.
But what happens when the debate calls for an “open discussion” after the two-minute answers, as Tuesday night’s debate did? What prevents a candidate from constantly interrupting his opponent? Is it up to the moderator to press the mute button or does someone in a control room do it? Who is ready to explain after the debate why some parts of the verbal exchanges have been cut and others not? Can we really expect a moderator, who is supposed to focus on asking questions, to focus instead on when and where to hit a mute button? What if a candidate is muted, but still doesn’t stop talking? It would surely be a distraction for his opponent.
We assume that what worked in normal situations would also work in this case. But what we saw on Tuesday night was not normal. Not even close to normal for a presidential debate.
Yet it may have been instructive. Let me suggest that what we saw on Tuesday night will help educate voters in their decision-making process.
The 90-minute verbal brawl mirrored that political moment in America. It was both combative and rude, with the candidates exchanging personal insults. Some pundits and viewers were so appalled that they called for the remaining debates to be canceled. At the very least, it wasn’t the debate that many Americans or probably even Chris Wallace expected or wanted. But it was still revealing.
In the debates I moderated, the aim was not only to address major political issues, but also to see how the candidates thought on their feet, to learn how they would react when directly challenged, to have a window into their temperament. If that is at least part of the point of the debate, Tuesday night served a purpose, as difficult as it was to watch.
Mike Gousha is a distinguished researcher in law and public policy at the Faculty of Law at Marquette University. E-mail: [email protected].