A Simple Plan to Fix the Presidential Debates

The integrity of the country’s political system is on the line.

President Barack Obama and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speak with moderator Bob Schieffer during the final U.S. presidential debate in 2012. (Reuters)

In 1960, the Nixon-Kennedy debates captivated the nation and by most accounts influenced the razor-thin outcome of the election. There was a hiatus in presidential debates until 1976, but they have become a campaign staple since, both a core part of the political discourse and one of the few moments when a larger share of rank-and-file voters pay attention to the real choices they face. This year they are more important than ever; when Donald Trump says the debates will break all records for viewership, he is likely correct.

Americans uncertain about the choice they face between Clinton and Trump will be eager to see them face-to-face. To be sure, the interest is not just driven by questions about their issue positions or their approaches to governing. Many people will be looking for the political equivalent of WWE—professional wrestling, where Donald Trump himself once relished a spotlighted role, pitted against impresario Vince McMahon.

We may well get a heavy dose of that kind of infotainment, which was in ample supply during the Republican primary debates. Their lowlight was a discussion of the size of Trump’s hands and male anatomy, mixed in with the retaliatory insults to “Little Marco” Rubio. But there is a compelling reason to hope that these fall debates don’t stoop that low. Of course, they should not and cannot be sanitized into a version of Kumbaya—there are stark differences that should be argued vigorously. But if the debates show the kind of coarsened discourse that we have seen on the campaign trail, with insults and blatant lies the norm, the consequences could be deadly.

For those who care about American political institutions and their capacity for governing, one of the most troubling phenomena, in a year of deeply troubling phenomena, has been Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that if he loses the election it will be because it was rigged. Trump’s attacks on the fundamental integrity of American elections—which echo the claim that voter suppression laws are justified by widespread voter fraud—threaten the political system’s entire sense of legitimacy. The effect, if Clinton wins the presidency, would be to make her into an illegitimate president, in the eyes of Trump supporters, before she is even inaugurated—and to make it almost impossible for many Republican lawmakers to do business with her without partisan repercussions.

Of course, the problem would not simply be about creating even more gridlock. America’s increasingly polarized and tribalized society is driven more by negative partisanship—the desire to block the enemy—than by positive visions of voters’ own party. It is driven by deepening divisions along class, educational, regional, and racial lines. Americans have long believed that, even if the bad guys won, at least they did it because they won more votes under the rules. The prospect of destroying that is frightening. The malicious Russian-driven hacks and leaks of emails, which have expanded from the Democratic National Committee to Colin Powell and perhaps even the Republican National Committee, seem designed to make politics and politicians all look even worse, to accelerate the loss of faith Americans have in their political system.

In 2000, America saw its most controversial election in at least a century. It took 36 bitter days after the election itself to decide, the ultimate winner lost the popular vote, and the decision was made by a Supreme Court, ruling 5-4 along the lines of which party’s president chose the justices. But the U.S. avoided a major crisis of governance because Americans broadly accepted the rules of the game, and because Al Gore, the ultimate loser, called for unity. Absent those factors, we might have blood in the streets. And that was when Americans were less divided than we are now.

To protect the country, Trump must dial back his outrageous, dangerous, and irresponsible statements about a rigged system and a rigged election. But it will take more than that. It will require a public demonstration that candidates and campaigns are back within some acceptable boundaries. That does not mean weaving a fantasy world of false unity. Campaigns are rough and tumble; politics is a contact sport. As Peter Finley Dunne said 120 years ago, “politics ain’t beanbag.” But it does mean operating within broad standards of conduct.

The pivotal events will be the three presidential debates, which kick off on September 26. And here, fortunately, the National Institute of Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona has just come out with guidelines for debaters, the debate audience and, importantly, the moderators, that need to be heeded. Most of the guidelines are simple and obvious: Debaters should be respectful of others, answer the questions asked, and stand against incivility; audience members should be respectful, not create disturbances, and listen to those speaking.

The key, though is the moderators. The Institute’s guidelines ask moderators to address uncivil behavior by calling it out; enforce debate rules equally; hold candidates accountable for truthfulness and integrity; treat candidates equally when it comes to complexity of issues and debate rules; and be respectful in interacting with the candidates.

Those guidelines would not fit the concept of the veteran debate moderators Jim Lehrer or Bob Schieffer, or the moderator of the third debate, Chris Wallace. Wallace last week said it was not his job to call out lies by the candidates or hold them accountable; that was up to the other candidate. Lehrer and Scheiffer echoed him. It is certainly true that Jim Lehrer long set the gold standard for debate moderators—but those were all debates with conventional and traditional presidential nominees.

This year is anything but conventional, on both sides. On the one hand, there is an unprecedented and, to use the kindest term, unconventional candidate in Donald Trump—one who has lied more, according to fact checkers, than any other candidate, and one who doubles down on his lies. On the other, there is a woman nominee for a major party for the first time in history—and women are held to a different standard than men, seen as shrill when men are viewed as decisive. A debate that has Clinton calling Trump a liar on a regular basis could pose a burden on her greater than that on Trump if he does the same thing. Of course, it could also be that Trump calling out a woman could leave him looking like a bully, faring worse than if his opponent were a man. Perhaps that danger will have Trump dialing back on bombast, reducing the cringe factor.

Most important, to say that when a candidate lies, the other candidate can use his or her rebuttal time to call out the lies while moderators remain silent, is to take away the rival candidate’s ability to answer questions the way they want, and instead forcing them to use their time on the other candidate’s turf. And, given Trump’s lack of policy chops, knowledge, and interest, that means a more substance-free debate.

More than ever, debates need to be more than infotainment, offering a serious exploration of candidate’s positions, beliefs, and ability to govern. That puts a burden on the candidates, on the audience in the hall, and on the moderators. For the sake of America’s ability to govern itself, they all need to rise to the occasion. The NICD guidelines are a start.