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September 29, 2023

There Has to Be a Better Way

We do a disservice to the voters by providing a crowded stage with dumb questions designed to provoke fights, not highlight differences.

The 2024 presidential season involves the senior citizens of both parties doing everything they can to prop up two venal, corrupt, narcissistic octogenarians against a crowd of more youthful, energetic and principled alternatives. Right now, the two old oligarchs running up against God’s own term limits are leading and nothing seems able to push them from their leads except external events.

Meanwhile, the alternatives on the Republican side have gone through their second debate. The only winner of the poop show was the man not on stage, former President Donald Trump. The others were subjected to silly questions, bad echoes, too much cross-talk and three moderators who struggled to herd the cats, not to mention a ridiculous survivor question that provoked open revolt from participants.

There has to be a better way to engage in a debate with the candidates. In 2015, CNN used the same forum — the Reagan Library — and provided better sound, less echo, less cross-talk, better ratings and better questions even with Trump on stage willing to talk over everyone. It was a mistake for the Republican National Committee to let Fox News dominate the first two debates.

First, while I think NBC and all its related entities should be excluded from participating with the GOP given that network’s open hostility to both the Republicans and any truth that might hurt the Democrats, CNN has an interest in restoring relationships with the GOP. The candidates still do not trust the network, nor does the crowd. But that provides the candidates an opportunity to push back against the presuppositions of the questions asked. It also provides the moderators a reason to ground their questions in what a Republican audience actually want.

Likewise, CNN does better staging of events. The network has a deep institutional understanding of staging these sorts of events. Their Reagan Library debate, in the same room, had better audio and acoustics than what we got the other night.

But the debates should consider more radical steps. Ditch the crowds. The candidates should be there to answer policy questions, not play for one-liners with the crowd. It has the potential to take some of the energy out of the debate, but that would actually foster more conversation.

Put the candidates around a table with microphones that limit surrounding audio. One of the problems of these debates is that the microphones all pick up the cross-talk. Turn off each candidate’s microphone unless they are called on. Using appropriate microphones will make it harder to hear the candidates trying to cut off each other. That will help the audience.

Stop trying to generate viral moments. The forced interaction between Tim Scott and Nikki Haley by the Fox Business moderators was designed to provoke an argument and a viral moment. It was, humorously, won by Ron DeSantis who interjected to denounce the absurdity of it. Likewise, the “survivor” question at the end of the debate where the moderators asked the candidates to vote off another debate participant was silly. Again, it gave DeSantis a moment to lead the competitors in rebellion against the moderators.

Lastly, avoid Trump. If the candidates want to bring him into the debate, let them. But the moderators need not drag him in. These men and woman are running to beat Joe Biden and be President. The Republican debate should let them engage on their policy preferences. On much, they will agree. Probe the areas of disagreement. But the fight is against the Democrats, and the base of the party wants someone who can beat the Democrats and chart a new national course.

Trump is the dominant force in the GOP. He refuses to participate in the debates. He has no need. The other candidates need the debates. We cannot force any of them out, but there is no reason to keep giving people with one percent polling a seat on stage. We do a disservice to the voters by providing a crowded stage with dumb questions designed to provoke fights, not highlight differences. There has to be a better way.


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