Don’t Blame the Moderator. Presidential Debates Are Set Up to Be a Charade.
Assuming he doesn’t chicken out, Donald Trump will take part in his second 2020 presidential debate tonight. His opponents will be Joe Biden, his own record, the notion of truth, and any sense of decency.
The good news is that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has introduced a new rule stating that each candidate’s microphone will be muted during his opponent’s initial two-minute statement for each of the six segments of the debate. So, we’ll hopefully only be subjected to Trump’s abusive routine for 78 minutes instead of the full 90.
It’s impossible to predict what will happen — except for, most likely, one thing. Critics will take to social media within minutes to criticize the debate moderator.
The problem is not specifically with tonight’s moderator, NBC’s Kristen Welker, but with all of the Beltway journalists whose need to maintain access to the White House tends to render them accomplices to enabling the lies and rule-breaking that come from that building on a daily basis.
Trump brazenly walked all over moderator Chris Wallace while repeatedly interrupting Biden in the first presidential debate, while in the vice-presidential debate, Mike Pence tried to do his creepy choirboy version of the same bullying act with his moderator Susan Page and vice-presidential opponent Kamala Harris.
Trump’s first debate performance was a minor disaster for his polling, but it was also a successful display of the authoritarianism that fires up his base — just as Pence’s treatment of Page and Harris scored a victory for misogyny and racism. These spectacles were degrading not just for Wallace and Page, but all of us who watched hoping to see an at least somewhat fair rhetorical fight, and instead had our time and intellect abused by these two-bit Republican bullies.
While we’re fully justified in tweeting our anger at the moderators during these debates, we should also be aware that they have about as much control over the proceedings as the microphones sitting atop the candidate podiums — thanks to a setup approved by both parties that has reduced these journalists to little more than tools to allow each party to broadcast its preferred message.
As they remind us at the beginning of each debate, one of the jobs of a debate moderator is to enforce the rules agreed upon by both candidates under the direction of the Commission on Presidential Debates. It all sounds fair enough, like two fighters getting final instructions from the referee just before they square off. But while referees work for neutral and independent leagues and governing bodies, our presidential debates are run by an organization with conflicts of influence that would embarrass the shadiest boxing federation.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is wholly controlled by the Democratic and Republican Parties, which created the commission three decades ago to allow their candidates to avoid having to answer real questions from both journalists and third-party candidates.
It was a convenient setup for two stable parties with broadly similar ideas on how to maintain the dominance of American capitalism and empire. But now one of those two parties is led by a plutocratic demagogue whose primary populist appeal is that he enrages elites by violating “norms” such as debate rules — and the Commission on Presidential Debates is as powerless as every other Washington institution designed to function under bipartisan civility.
In the 1970s and 1980s, televised presidential debates were organized by the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group with roots in the women’s suffrage movement. But starting in 1988, presidential debates were taken over by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a new organization that was technically unaffiliated with any party but was in essence a bipartisan organization founded by the chairs of the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Because we have been conditioned to accept our two-party system as a universal norm, many people treat the words bipartisan (involving two parties) and nonpartisan (independent from any party) as interchangeable synonyms for neutrality.
But that’s a serious mistake, because our two major parties are anything but unbiased.
During the 1980s, for example, both major parties in the U.S. — Republicans under Ronald Reagan and Democrats under Reagan-lite moderates like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden — were embracing right-wing policies of deregulation even as public opinion remained supportive of liberal social welfare programs. Neither party wanted to discuss the country’s growing inequality and racist backlash, and Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Democratic primary challenge made them wary of third parties forming to the left of their political duopoly.
Enter the Commission on Presidential Debates, which vowed to “institutionalize” the debates under tighter party control, and to establish new participation criteria — such as receiving over 15 percent support in at least five national polls — that would make it almost impossible for third-party candidates who aren’t billionaires to qualify.
The League of Women Voters withdrew sponsorship of the debates, declaring the organization had no intention of becoming an accessory to the “hoodwinking of the American public.” In a blistering 1988 statement, League President Nancy Neuman denounced the “campaigns’ demands to control selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.”
“It has become clear to us,” Neuman continued, “that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.”
All in all, a pretty accurate description of virtually every presidential debate since 1984.
This year’s presidential debates are a microcosm of our larger dilemma. It’s enraging to have to endure Trump’s flagrant violations of the rules both campaigns have agreed to, but the entire structure that produced those rules has for the past 30 years been designed to produce little more than softball questions for candidates to deliver sound bites and corny one-liners.
It was telling that after all of our justified outrage over Trump’s abusive debate spectacle, the dominant reaction to the more subdued vice-presidential debates was boredom — a reminder of how little there is to watch during a verging-on-normal debate run by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
I’m sure that the Commission on Presidential Debates is genuinely hoping to impose more order on the proceedings tonight, but its aim is to restore not genuine debate but its illusion. The debate is yet one more of our supposedly democratic institutions that is being exposed as an empty husk under the pressure of Trump’s nihilistic assault.
Tonight, a modicum of Kristen Welker’s reputation as a journalist rests on her ability to not allow Trump get away with lying and bullying. But her employment prospects with the Comcast Corporation that owns NBC depend on her ability to maintain access to the White House, something she could jeopardize by doing the job we need her to do.
Call debate moderators hacks if you want, but the job they are expected to perform for their bosses is to absorb our anger as their companies rake in the ad revenue from the ratings bonanza that is the spectacle of our disintegrating political order.
While these debates have shown that elite institutions like Comcast and the Commission on Presidential Debates are no match for a contender who doesn’t care about preserving bipartisan stability, that doesn’t mean Trump is all-powerful. He’s often incredibly weak when he feels threatened by real social power — it was just a few months ago that the man literally hid in a bunker in the face of widespread protests against racism.
There’s a lesson here for Democrats, whose Biden-led centrist wing would much prefer to counter Trump with appeals to continuity and bipartisanship than protest movements that won’t be satisfied with a return to the status quo.
The conditions of tonight’s debate, an unfair contest in which one side can violate the rules with impunity, are also the conditions facing our overall fight for justice and equality. A moderator can’t fix that, and in all likelihood neither can Joe Biden.
But we can, through continuing to mobilize through the very protests, organizations and insurgent electoral campaigns that Donald Trump will vilify tonight as dangerous threats -because somewhere deep inside that reptile brain of his lies a recognition that these movements have the potential to build real power, the kind that makes his aggro debate schtick look even smaller than it already does.
Originally published at https://truthout.org on October 22, 2020.