Pence won, and the Commission on Presidential Debates continues to lose
Vice President Mike Pence scored a convincing win in the Wednesday night debate with Kamala Harris. The debate was a more ordered affair with far fewer interruptions and clearer contrasts between the two campaigns. These are important ingredients that can be delivered with improvements in the debate process. The grudging process in presidential debates comes from proper public pressure that needs to continue in the days ahead. There are three important takeaways for presidential debating that are clearer after this second debate.
First, Pence did an impressive job debating a highly skilled opponent in Kamala Harris. It was apparent that Harris came to the debate with an aggressive agenda to deliver the knock-out punch to the Trump campaign. She failed to do that, and Pence delivered decisive counter-strikes on at least three fronts: 1) Kayla Mueller, 2) George Floyd, and 3) court-packing. On Mueller and Floyd, Pence deftly utilized attending audience members at the Utah debate to turn the question painfully upon the Biden campaign to force concession and conciliatory rhetoric in deference to Pence's strong points. Harris had to acknowledge the Mueller family and apologize for the failure to kill Baghdadi under the Obama/Biden administration. It was powerful and an exceptional piece of debating skill. On court-packing, Pence played moderator, and, incredibly, Harris took the bait and allowed herself to be reeled in on Pence's line. She agreed to answer the question and then refused to answer the question. It was a stunning turn of events for a debater with her prosecutorial skills.
Second, the moderator made substantial improvements upon the poor conduct of the previous debate moderated by Chris Wallace. Wallace complained that "he baked a beautiful cake that the President put his foot in," betraying his original promise that he was going to be "invisible." Wallace thought the debate should be primarily about his elaborately framed questions making arguments against the debaters. To that end, he surpassed his own record of consuming 19% of debate three in 2016 and last week consumed 25% of the debate. In 2016, Wallace consumed twice as much time as the other two moderators, who took less than 10% of the time. Susan Page did better but was able to violate a basic premise of good debate: equal time. Despite suggesting during her moderation that both sides should receive equal time, she delivered more than three minutes of extra speaking time to Kamala Harris. That was a more than ten-percent advantage in speaker time to team Biden/Harris, and Page disproportionately interrupted Pence at key points of insurgent rhetoric by the vice president. This tactic of giving Democrats extra speaking time harkens back to the practices of 2012, where team Obama/Biden were given extra time in all four debates compared to McCain/Ryan.
Finally, team Trump/Pence should be concerned about the format and moderation of the next debate. The "town hall" format was designed to be an insidious ideological trap. While ostensibly offering itself as a voicing of typical public concerns, individuals who appear in the audience must reveal their questions in advance, and their written note cards are studied by the moderator, who then selects which questions will be heard. If the moderator does not like a question, that individual will not receive a microphone. This is contrived and misleading. At one Biden town hall event, a selected citizen refused to read the assigned question.
Steve Scully from C-SPAN will moderate this debate. Scully served as an intern in Senator Biden's office and also worked for Senator Ted Kennedy. This is ethically inappropriate, and the Commission on Presidential Debates certainly knows this, and it fundamentally betrays the long insincere maintenance of non-partisanship by the commission.
Twenty sixteen was a historic year in Presidential debating because Republicans and Democrats got equal time in the debates for the first time in many elections. The need for further reforms in our presidential debating process is vital to the underlying tensions of the voting public. Public anger at journalists has rarely been higher, yet the CPD provides no real limits on moderators with regard to how they conduct these debates. The public and Republican presidential campaigns need to do a better job of challenging a process that has the potential to defuse some of our most serious civic problems.
Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor at SMU at the Director of Debate. He has published four academic books on debate as vital to national and international concerns.
Screen shot from a camera aimed at a computer streaming service via shareable C-SPAN, YouTube.