Two things are clear about the 2020 presidential debate.
First, the format is not successful. It discourages debate between the contenders. I return to this below.
Second, the winner of this debate will never live in the White House. That is because the winner, he who gained most from the debate, was undoubtedly the moderator, Chris Wallace.
Like others peripheral to a main event—such as House of Commons Speaker John Bercow during BREXIT and Bishop Michael Curry at Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding—the moderator seemed unaware of the fact that people did not tune in to hear him.
Deciding not to play the invisible role he said he desired, he effectively became one of the debaters. His reward is that he is now recognizable beyond his Sunday FoxTV programme, not only in the United States but across the world. Moreover, he is now the darling of one side.
A registered Democrat, he found the evidence of Christine Blasey Ford on Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh to be “credible” and that additional witnesses should have been called to the Senate impeachment hearing. President Trump, he says, should be condemned for naming the mainstream media “enemy of the people,” even if they knowingly published four years of “fake news” on the unconstitutional and illegal coup against him.
The moderator’s questions were of the category which, in chairing an investigation, I have tried to dissuade other panel members from putting. Such questions are always too long and convoluted, a mixture of evidence and opinion with the actual question too often of the loaded “When did you stop beating your wife?” variety.
I have found a similar phenomenon when giving evidence at some or other parliamentary committee hearing. The best solution is before answering to pause in reflection until the questioner becomes uneasy, and then ask: “Could you repeat the question?”
Among the worst questions asked in the Trump-Biden debate was one which yet again repeated the tired Charlottesville fiction that Trump supported and did not condemn white supremacists there.
He did, and on several occasions.
The question, delivered by the moderator as if he were the Inquisition’s Tomás de Torquemada, was: “Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”
Apart from implying, especially through the studied use of the words “willing” and “tonight,” that Trump has not previously condemned supremacists, the question denies the fact that the Democrat’s allies or military arm, BLM and Antifa, are responsible for almost all of the looting, burning, assaulting, and killing across America. It suggests white supremacists are at least equally culpable, which is just not so.
The president replied to Wallace in the affirmative more than once, to be faced with an increasingly shrill demand, soon joined by Biden, that he do what he had already done.
The moderator was well aware of at least one previous condemnation. Why? Because he not only heard it, he asked it.
As co-moderator for a Detroit Republican primary on March 3, 2016—four years ago—he asked much the same question from Trump, and received much the same spirited condemnation.
So why did he ask it again and in terms suggesting President Trump was reluctant to issue the very condemnation he had heard in Detroit? Curiously, immediately after the debate, the mainstream media repeated Wallace’s demand although they all knew he had issued a trail of condemnation.
You could almost think this was all planned in advance. If so, why? Rush Limbaugh offers the entirely plausible reason that this could be a response to Democrat in-house polling showing a significant leakage of Afro-American votes to Trump. Perhaps. That already seems to be happening with the Hispanic vote.
Returning to the debate, Trump was asked another loaded question, this time suggesting the California Forest Fires are caused by global warming, now called climate change. The question, delivered again in inquisitorial style, implied that failure to believe this is heretical and not based on any scientific assessment.
“The forest fires in the West are raging now,” Wallace began. “They have burned millions of acres. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. When state officials there blamed the fires on climate change, Mr. President, you said, I don’t think the science knows. Over your four years, you have pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. You have rolled back a number of Obama Environmental records. What do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?”
This forced and was designed to make the president debate not only with the Democrat contender, but also with Wallace. This was partly because of Wallace’s determination to be both a player and chairman, an undesirable mixture seen at its worse in the current U.S. House of Representatives and unusually in London during Brexit.
The other reason for the forced debate with the moderator is, as I have said, the format. This encourages not only self-aggrandisement on the part of the moderator but even the temptation to give notice in advance of a question or even questions to one side.
The solution is to take away the moderator’s questions. He or she should make no comments apart from short, formal introductions and a closure.
After the toss of a coin, the winner should decide who will go first. There could be two-minute open statements followed by a series of short questions, say one minute, and short answers, say four minutes, all between the contenders. They should be without notice, without any restrictions and without any pre-conceived theme, say, foreign policy.
There could be short final statements. Given the many opportunities to speak, the right to ask anything, and the absence of themes, most relevant issues would be covered and there would be less temptation to interject excessively.
Part of one of the debates could allow for a number of prepared short questions from the Grand Jury , a “grand jury” chosen at random and politically balanced from a pool of applicants.
The result overall, subject to the calibre of the candidates, should result in a lively, entertaining, and informative series.
David Flint, A.M., is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and Australian Broadcasting Authority and is an emeritus professor of law.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.