They can get you to stop talking with one raised eyebrow. They are able to somehow detect when even the most skilled fibber isn't telling the truth. They've heard every excuse in the book, and don't have time for new ones. They have the power to take away your recess.
It's time to do away with journalists moderating political debates and bring in the big guns: elementary school teachers.
It takes a Herculean effort for a third grade teacher to keep a classroom of 8-year-olds focused, listening, and following directions. Managing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is simple by comparison. Oh, you think you can talk over each other and ignore my instructions with no consequences? That'll be a note home and the guilt that goes along with knowing you've disappointed me.
During Tuesday's vice presidential debate, moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News asked tough but fair questions: How can homegrown terror attacks be prevented? What steps can be taken to keep North Korea from developing a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States? Did the candidates ever struggle to balance personal faith with a public policy position? You probably didn't realize this, though, because at times it was close to impossible to hear anything through the cacophony that was Tim Kaine talking over Mike Pence talking over Tim Kaine.
Quijano asked them to stop several times, once even forcefully reminding the candidates that "the people at home cannot understand either one of you when you speak over each other." They ignored her. Soon enough, their steamrolling was complete, and Quijano faded into the background, sometimes disappearing altogether before coming back to plead with the men to answer her questions, one at a time.
For a certain set of hyper-partisan people, any moderator is bound to fail — many Donald Trump supporters are vocal about their dislike of the media, and think the fix is in before the debate even begins, while some diehard Hillary Clinton backers are certain that she is always asked the difficult questions while Trump gets to skate by. And I don't believe Kaine or Pence purposefully talked over and ignored Quijano because they don't respect her. This is just what's expected out of debates now — insults, denials, and deflections without clear talk of policy and action. And Quijano, like most reporters, isn't used to having to wrangle such rowdy people.
But you know who is used to it? Elementary school teachers.
A good elementary school teacher can thrive in this kind of environment, turning the disobedient into model children. Of course, a middle or high school teacher would make an excellent moderator as well — they're used to dealing with unruly, self-absorbed know-it-alls on a daily basis — but there's just something about the elementary school teacher. As a kid, you want to make them proud, and to recognize your achievements. At the same time, they want the best for you — and in order to make sure you can learn everything possible, they suffer no fools.
During a teacher-moderated debate, the ground rules would be set in the beginning (explained in that teacher voice we all know so well) and strictly followed: Rock, Paper, Scissors decides who gets to speak first. Stay on topic. If you interrupt or talk over the other person, your name will go up on a white board. Every following infraction will incur a check mark next to your name. Three or more, you'll be removed from the stage. When the candidates start raising their voices or getting heated, the moderator will clap her hands in a pattern, and they have to clap back. This is a classic teacher move, meant to distract kids from what they're doing and bring them back to attention. If they don't clap back, it's a check on the white board.
The moderator would offer plenty of positive praise as well — "I like the way Donald is sitting up straight in his chair." "I like how Hillary waited for Donald to finish his answer before responding." For every question they actually answer on the first try, they'll get a sticker. If they get five stickers, they can go to the treasure box and pick out one of those cool pens with six different colored inks, or a "Make America Great Again" hat.
With this much structure, it will be hard for the candidates to get out of line. And if they do, it will be easy to get them back on track. They don't answer the question? The teacher will respond as such: "That's a good answer if I asked you about Hillary Clinton's emails, Mike, but I asked why your running mate uses Twitter at all hours of the night to settle personal scores." If they start interrupting each other, the teacher will raise her voice to get their attention, then whisper her next question — they have to stop talking long enough to decipher what she's saying. If they are so out of control none of that works, the teacher will pick up a clicker and just start clicking away until the candidates look at her. They'll be rewarded with a small treat.
That's actually how you train a dog, but it seems apt here.
Voters are hungry for substance, and that's hard to get in a debate where the transcript includes such notations as (crosstalk) and (unintelligible). A good debate absolutely needs some back and forth, but not at the sake of constructive dialogue. Elementary school teachers know the importance of communication and words and how they're conveyed, and should be our secret weapon in the fight against debates that don't live up to their potential.