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The first presidential debate on Sept. 29 was a mess. Both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden talked over each other, traded insults and avoided questions from moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. Trump was clearly worse, and set the chaotic tone from the beginning, but it was a bad night for American democracy across the board.
With some much needed rule changes from the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, there’s reason to hope things will be at least a little better for the country during the second debate Thursday night.
The 90-minute debate moderated by NBC News’ Kristen Welker will have six different 15-minute segments. Under the commission’s changes, Trump and Biden will have their microphones cut off while the other gives a two-minute answer to each of the debate topics. After each candidate has their two minutes of uninterrupted remarks, there will be open debate on that topic without a mute button. Any interruptions will count toward their time.
The changes to limit interruptions are welcome and fair. They recognize the failures of the first debate and seek to prevent a repeat. Americans deserve to see a more orderly discussion and debate of ideas — not two old men yelling at each other.
Trump and his campaign have criticized the changes, with campaign manager Bill Stepien saying the president “is committed to debating Joe Biden regardless of last minute rule changes from the biased commission in their latest attempt to provide advantage to their favored candidate.”
It’s a telling reaction from the Trump campaign, as if moving toward a minimum level of civil discourse and having an orderly exchange of ideas automatically puts Trump at a disadvantage.
It’s no great stretch to wonder if disorder is a desired debate outcome for Trump and his campaign. We’ve already seen them try to make the case after the first debate that Wallace, by trying to enforce the ground rules when Trump was challenging them, was somehow supporting Biden. But that was a defense of order and the basic integrity of the debate, not of Biden. And as Wallace pointed out at the time, Biden was guilty of it too, just not nearly as much.
Trump has also tried to attack the credibility of the debate commission, and the other moderators. Trump has good reason to pile on suspended C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully, who was supposed to host an Oct. 15 debate before it was canceled amid Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. Scully deserves resounding criticism for lying about being hacked on social media after sending a questionable tweet related to the president.
But Trump’s attempts to undermine Welker’s credibility are way off the mark. Just consider what one of his own advisors has said about her.
“I think she’s going to do an excellent job as the moderator for the third debate,” Trump campaign senior advisor Jason Miller told Fox News earlier this month about Welker. “I think she’s a journalist who’s very fair in her approach and I think that she’ll be a very good choice for this third debate.”
Trump’s weak complaints about the debate process have even extended to the topics that will be discussed Thursday night. The Trump campaign contends this final debate was supposed to be focused on foreign policy. However, a debate outline from the commission in early Sept. indicated that the moderator would be selecting the major topics and then announcing them a week before the debate.
For what it’s worth, nearly all of the topics selected by Welker — fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership — can be connected to foreign policy.
The current fight over the Supreme Court, including questions about whether Democrats would move to expand the size of the court, is not expressly on Welker’s list. But a critical part of leadership is transparency, and Biden has thus far failed to be transparent on this issue, even as he has rightly expressed caution about such a drastic step as changing the size of the Supreme Court. The American people deserve a clear answer from Biden about this, and they deserve it before the election. The debate would be a good time to provide it.
America faces a host of issues that require thoughtful debate, not incoherent arguing. We hope the new commission rules help deliver that kind of productive discussion in Thursday’s final presidential debate.