How to fix the debates

The first presidential debate of 2020 was a national embarrassment.  The interruptions and talk-overs numbered more than 90 by some counts.  The moderator struggled to enforce the rules yet also led Trump to accuse him of being a third debate participant.  It was demolition derby in place of debate.

For years we have been advocating a solution that would radically improve the presidential debate format.  It has also been proposed by a bipartisan group convened by the Annenberg Center.

The best solution is simple, elegant, and fair.  Let the candidates manage their time, but let only one microphone be on at once.  This solution is also readily extensible to a debate in which the candidates are in different places to minimize risk from COVID-19.  It is sometimes called a "chess clock" debate format.

Imagine this introduction by the moderator of the next debate.  

Welcome to the second presidential debate.  The rules are as follows.  Each candidate has forty-five minutes total speaking time during this debate.  You cannot speak for more than three minutes at a time before the other candidate gets a turn.  When one of you is using your time, the other will have a muted microphone.  To request to speak, push the button on your podium.  Your time will start when the other is done speaking. The first question is...

Such a simple set of rules.  Such a radical transformation of the debate.   

No interruptions.  Each candidate will have a live microphone only when using his time.  The epidemic of interruptions for instant rebuttals during the other candidate's argument will be eliminated.  Instead, this format lets each candidate speak at will but forces the candidates to take turns.  No more than three minutes each. 

No moderator cutting off candidates.  A clock with time to speak on the current question and total time will be visible for each candidate.  The alternative way to get turn-taking is to let the moderator or the networks mute candidates.  This risks the appearance and actuality of unfairness and invites rhetoric attacking the moderator.  

It will be candidate-driven.  No one has more incentive to raise the tough questions and tough follow-ups for an opponent.  Both will have time to pursue those questions and their answers.  The moderator will enter with a new question only when no eligible candidate requests time, or at pre-selected intervals. 

It will be fast-paced.  Candidates will know that they can always use additional time to rebut, but no candidate will want to grant an opponent the luxury of the only extensive closing statement, and candidates will have less incentive to waste time by answering any question with more words than necessary. 

It would work equally well for a "Zoom" debate.  Because of the turn-taking managed by requests to speak and the clock, this format will work well even if the candidates, as a health precaution, are not able to be in the same room together. 

Minor candidates can also be included in this format without giving them an unfair advantage, and large primary candidate stages can be similarly accommodated.  The key is to use a formula (based on polling, fundraising, or some other metric) to allocate a small amount of time to minor candidates.  They would not receive the (arguably inappropriate) equal billing with major candidates, but they would also have a brief chance to make their case.  

A debate structured in this way will be good television and good for our democracy.  It will move the moderator to the sidelines, allow for more physical distance during the debate, and prevent interruptions.

Jesse Richman is an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University.  The Richmans co-authored the 2014 book Balanced Trade: Ending the Unbearable Costs of America's Trade Deficits, published by Lexington Books.

Image: Fox News via YouTube.