The New Debate Rules Are a Mistake

The Commission on Presidential Debates is choosing the appearance of civility over an honest, open display of the two men’s characters.

An illustration of a podium overlaid with a volume-mute symbol
Getty / The Atlantic

The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced that it will employ mute buttons during tonight’s debate, cutting off President Donald Trump or Vice President Joe Biden if either attempts to interrupt the other’s two-minute speaking time. On the surface, this might seem like an excellent idea: We’ll get to hear more of the candidates’ answers to questions, and less crosstalk, than we did four weeks ago.

But the decision to mute the candidates is a mistake. In choosing the appearance of civility over an honest, open display of the two men’s characters, the commission has failed in the way so many institutions have failed over these past four years: by giving a sheen of normalcy to an utterly dangerous moment and man.

The first debate, held on September 29, was widely agreed to have been a disaster. For 90 minutes, Trump yelled, blustered, attacked, and threw a temper tantrum. Vice President Biden occasionally fired back (I don’t believe a president has ever been told to shut up on live TV before) but the dynamic of the night was clear: President Trump was the bull, and the rest of us were the china shop.

Before the debate had even ended, the idea of a presidential mute button was gaining steam, and it’s easy to see why. What took place in Cleveland four weeks ago was a spectacle and an embarrassment—but it was by no reasonable definition a debate. A few of Trump’s supporters enjoyed that he seemed, to them at least, to be the alpha male in the room. But among those who, regardless of party, believe that American politics ought to have more dignity than a reality show, the display was unconscionable. Biden supporters were particularly concerned, since the debacle robbed their candidate of the chance to discuss his views.

Yet in their early reaction, many progressives—myself included—got it wrong. As disgusting as the spectacle was, it revealed something important about the president’s character and the choice in this election. And, as polls later demonstrated, Americans took notice. By large margins, they agreed that Vice President Biden won the first debate—and that President Trump’s conduct was one of the main reasons he lost.

This is exactly what we should want out of a democracy. By making it more difficult for candidates who behave like angry toddlers to win elections, the American people are enforcing norms, and reducing the likelihood that future politicians will break them. What initially looked like a tragedy for American democracy was in fact an enormous victory.

Which is what makes the recent behavior of the commission so confounding. Thanks to its choice to mute the candidates, the American people won’t get another opportunity to witness the president’s true behavior. There is a vanishingly small chance that Trump would have pulled himself together and acted like a grown-up. There is a far greater chance that Trump would have picked up where he left off in Cleveland, giving the public an excellent, albeit terrifying, insight into how he’ll govern over the next four years. Now they won’t see that. The mute button isn’t necessary to protect the norm that candidates should be respectful during debates; the voters already proved themselves capable of protecting it without one. Instead, the mute button will impose a new, more subdued tone upon a man who is incapable of adopting one himself.

Even with a presidential pacifier, Trump is not destined to win the final debate, or get through it without embarrassment. Nor is one debate likely to change everything, no matter how much the president wishes it would. But institutions covering up the ugly reality of Trumpism with a thin veneer of civility is not a new or isolated phenomenon. For four years, too many news organizations have overlooked or downplayed the president’s most vile comments. Too many Washington think tanks, panels, and parties have insisted, in the name of nonpartisanship, on treating all sides’ opinions as equally valid. Too many politicians, and former politicians, continue to treat Donald Trump as though he’s a run-of-the-mill conservative president, rather than the unprecedented threat to American democracy we saw on display in Cleveland.

For an hour and a half on Thursday, we’ll probably appreciate the commission’s rule change. Our national blood pressure and alcohol consumption will likely be far lower than they were four weeks ago. But the commission, while capable of forcing Trump to play by the rules for 90 minutes, has no similar power over the next four years. The best way to promote civility, not just for an evening, but over the long term, is to let the candidates remind the American people who they really are, and let the American people vote accordingly.