Knowing When to Cut the Mic


Screenshot from CSPAN Livestream

As the country enters the final three weeks before the long-awaited general election, where  President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden will compete for the presidency, many have turned their attention to the presidential debates. As of Oct. 11, there has been one presidential debate and one Vice Presidential debate. The second presidential debate was canceled after Trump reportedly refused the virtual format offered when his positive COVID-19 result made an in-person debate impossible. Trump stated “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” and claimed that the idea was “ridiculous.” Joe Biden accepted the online debate format.

Anyone watching any debate can clearly notice the immediate importance of the moderator. The traditional job of the moderator, since the first presidential debate in 1948,  has been to be neutral, hold participants to the time restraints, and keep the nominees on the topics selected. However, Chris Wallace, the Fox News Journalist who moderated the first presidential debate for the 2020 general election, seemed to be responsible for more than being neutral or keeping time. Wallace was challenged with keeping President Trump in line, someone who uses fear and aggression to impose his power, someone who refuses to listen, answer questions, or give his opponent a chance to speak.

On Sept. 29th, Wallace walked into what historian Kevin Kruse of The Washington Post claimed was “the worst presidential debate.” Trump was talking over both Biden and Wallace, and refusing to listen to Biden during his allotted “uninterrupted” time to speak. Wallace was seemingly unable to control the discussion or President Trump throughout the night.

The ninety-minute debate mainly consisted of Wallace asking, and eventually demanding that Trump follow the rules and stop interrupting Biden’s speaking time. But, as anyone could have guessed, Trump refused and spent the rest of the debate continuously talking out of turn, pushing his own thoughts regardless of the questions asked, and refusing to listen to anyone. 

So how is the moderator expected to host these debates with Trump: a type of politician that has rarely been seen before, whose authority hasn’t been questioned in his three years in the White House. It’s hard to say if there’s an answer to that question that goes beyond turning off each candidate’s microphone when their time runs up.

It’s a question that seems impossible to answer and has not been commented on from the Commission on Presidential Debates, who organizes and pays for the debates. Margret Sullivan, a media columnist for the Washington Post, stated that “failing some radical reform in the debate format, there’s no reason for the next two debates to take place.” This sentiment has been taken by many, as there is nothing a moderator can do that will effectively control Trump, making any diplomatic debate with him as a participant inherently unmanageable. The changes that must take place have nothing to do with a moderator, no one can control a man who has spent the last three years in a white house echo chamber where he never hears the word “no.”

The presidential debates have major significance in the election process. Voters should be able to hear the nominees speak and answer pressing questions before election day. The town hall format, which would include questions from the audience, has existed since 1992. This was the original format for the second presidential debate before it was cancelled. It gives the power to the voters to have their issues heard, form connections between the American people and the nominees and allows the nominees to show off their charisma.

The moderators of the debates choose the questions and topics discussed, as well as decide what time is allotted in each segment. In most debates, the questions asked set the conversation, while in the most recent presidential debate the topics seemed to be whatever was on Trump’s mind. The questions that Wallace asked revolved around the topics of Trump and Biden’s record, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence, and the integrity of the coming election.

Each debate’s moderator is able to ask whatever questions they find fitting. Susan Page, a journalist for USA Today, closed the debate with a question at the most recent vice presidential debate which was written by an 8th grader from Utah. The question, by Brecklynn Brow, boiled down to: “if our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens supposed to get along?”

It seems especially appropriate to ask this question a week after Americans watched the two leaders of the country’s political parties not “get along” for 90 minutes. 

Mike Pence began his answer by noting the importance of arguments, claiming that “free and open debate” makes America “the most free and prosperous country in the history of the world.” Kamala Harris took a different approach, by speaking on the importance of compromise, and citing Biden’s ability to “work across the aisle.”

The second presidential debate, originally scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, Florida, has been canceled by the Commission on Presidential Debates after President Trump refused the format. The debate was going to be moderated by Steve Scully, an executive producer for C-Span T.V. 

The third debate, which may or may not take place, is scheduled for Oct. 22 and would be hosted by Kristen Walker, a journalist for NBC. Imagining another in-person debate between Trump and Biden that does not turn into disaster is hard. Unless there is a major rule change, and the moderator becomes harsher when enforcing the rules, or they give someone a button to turn off President Trump’s microphone, very few expect it will go any different from the first debate.