Time for the anti-moderator in presidential debates


The clamor over the raucus first debate between presidential candidates centers around the candidates and the moderator continually talking over each other and name calling.

The criticism of Chris Wallace has been brutal from supporters of both candidates. Prior to the debates, Wallace had commented that he knew he would be successful if he was invisible as the moderator during the debate. Mission definitely not accomplished.

But that is a truly unfair assessment to make of the moderator of any high stakes political debate with candidates having strong personalities. Looking back at presidential debates over the years, no matter who moderates, they are always criticized roundly. Many pundents are now calling for more stringent rules and enforcement of them for the next debate. 

How about a contrary perspective?  We want to hear from the candidates, so why not get the moderator out of the way and let the candidates hash things out without interference?

Time limits for discussion on specific topics could be set. Those topics should be policy related and the time frame for each should be long enough for each candidate to get in their licks and their proposals. Perhaps 10 or 15 minutes each, alternating which candidate starts from segment to segment. The moderator sets up each segment with an overview of the topic and then gets the heck out of the way. He or she then serves as the timekeeper for the segment, calling time at the end. The time limit for each segment would be the only hard and fast rule.

Then the discussion moves on to the next topic, with the set up from the moderator and the other candidate starts this time.

Without a referee the candidates would have to curb themselves….or not. Would this style devolve into a shouting match? Perhaps, but more likely each candidate would have to think more about how they present themselves with no outside arbitor to blame for their behavior.

Have you ever played pick-up games of basketball, soccer, hockey or any other sport?  Players have to be responsible to call their own fouls and violations, and most do a pretty fair job of it.  All the players, on both pick-up teams know the few individual players that will never admit to a foul or violation, and those players are not popular. 

The risk is that one candidate may run roughshod over the other in a debate with no referee. That could happen, but is unlikely. Presidential candidates are smart enough to know the voters would perceive, and not appreciate, that kind of bullying. On the other hand, voters want to see candidates commanding a strong presence. If voters see a candidate that can’t deal well with his or her opponent, and looks weak in an open discussion, they will take their support elsewhere.

Without a moderator in the middle of the discussion, the two candidates would have to control themselves and focus on winning the arguments in a way that wins voter support. They neither want to alienate their voter base nor lose potential undecided voters to bad behavior. It would become obvious and frustrating to voters if all they do is spew their own talking points. 

This approach would also be a better way to see if each of the candidates commands the facts and nuances of policy issues. Are they able to convert that knowledge into cogent arguments? Can he or she think on their feet? How does the candidate react to being attacked either on positions, or personally?

Our two party political system gives us a pretty good idea where the candidates stand on big picture issues. Despite popular opinion, it is not the gotcha moments that will win the day. Any gaffs will be picked up by the media and partisans in the short run. But it is how they express their understanding of the issues and their own plans and solutions that will persuade voters in this type of debate format.

It’s worth a try. Let’s turn the candidates loose in the debate coliseum and see who comes out on top!

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