The uncertain future of presidential debates
The morning after a largely unremarkable vice presidential debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced its next matchup between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be virtual "to protect the health and safety of all involved."
Then Biden announced that if Trump's not debating, he's not debating.
Then Trump announced actually he doesn't want to cancel debates, just to reschedule them, so the American people are not "deprived" of experiencing another Trump-Biden tiff. Oh, goody.
I would happily be so deprived and indeed am firmly settled into an exhausted agnosticism as to how this debate fiasco will end. But, as that end is not yet arrived, here are three scenarios for the future of presidential debates now and in elections to come.
1. Debates are over forever. Both latest campaign statements express the farcical notion that another debate is a needful exercise in accountability to the American people, as if these 90 minutes will expose some truth two literal lifetimes in the public eye haven't revealed. But the disagreement over format offers Trump and Biden an option of refusing to debate while insisting their hearts have no greater desire. Tuesday's veep debate could be the last we'll see this year.
Could it be the last debate ever? That strikes me as unlikely but not inconceivable. Once the participation expectation is broken, it would be more easily flouted by future campaigns. Candidates may decide dealing with an opponent's demands is more trouble than it's worth. And anyway, it's not as if debate (in this artificial and superficial televised format) is part of the president's day-to-day work. A few tough interviews or unvetted town hall questions would give voters more insight into a candidate's positions and governing skills than the debates do now.
2. Debates return in a meaningfully modified format. After the debate last month, the CPD said it would "shortly" reveal format changes "to ensure a more orderly discussion." That hasn't happened, and, with the status of the final two debates now uncertain, may not happen at all. Trump opposed any new rules, and his campaign's rescheduling statement accused the CPD of trying to "protect" Biden — politically, one assumes, as the CPD openly said it is trying to protect participants' health.
It would be easier to change the rules between elections than between debates, though, and perhaps that's what the CPD will do. The possibilities are plentiful. The most common suggestion is cutting the mic of the candidate who is not supposed to be speaking — and the ease with which that could be done in a virtual format is exactly why Trump doesn't like it.
Eliminating the in-house audience strikes me as a good idea, too. Other options include a formal debate format with longer segments of speaking time, ending "open discussion" portions that devolve into indecipherable crosstalk, or penalizing candidates who interrupt too often by cutting their time. (Alternatively, it might be enlightening to go all the way in the other direction: Lock the candidates in a camera-laden room for a couple hours with no moderator and just see what happens.)
Despite the CPD's stated intent to reform, I don't anticipate many substantive changes this cycle — or ever. The CPD is run by Democratic and Republican Party leaders who in 1988 took over from the previous organizers, the League of Women Voters, after the group accused the parties of "fraud," "charades," and "hoodwinking of the American public." Exposing the conspirators did nothing to stop them. And as long as the CPD is in charge, it will design debates that, on balance, shield the major party nominees from real scrutiny.
3. The debates go on as usual, maybe in this cycle and definitely in the future. The first Trump-Biden debate drew 73 million viewers, and that number stayed fairly consistent throughout the event. That's the third-largest debate audience in U.S. history, and the largest ever tuned in for the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago. Ratings could certainly plummet post-Trump, but as of now, the debates are valuable to the television networks that air them.
They also have decades of inertia in the current format's favor, and one or two missed debates may not be enough to overcome it. But the main reason I lean toward this third scenario is the primary debates. Though hardly as useful as they could be, these debates offer voters a convenient introduction to a large slate of candidates. No one suggests ending the primary debates, and as long as they're intact, I expect the general election debates will naturally follow.
Unless something changes with the primaries, we'll likely be having all the same debate reform conversations around this time in 2024. "Last night was so obnoxious," we'll say. "Maybe in 2028 they can start cutting those mics."
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