It all started off as planned. The first presidential debate flowed smoothly, the two candidates engaged each other respectfully, and the moderator allowed the conversation to unfold naturally.
And then the second minute arrived.
Last night’s train wreck had more than one author. Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted, even when it would have been smarter to let his opponent tie himself up in knots. At times, especially on taxes, Biden had difficulty with remaining on point — but Trump kept letting him off the hook by talking over him. Joe Biden didn’t do all that much better on interruptions or side interjections, plus Biden reverted to his own form by repeatedly calling Trump names such as “clown” or “fool,” and also repeatedly telling him to “shut up, man” or “shut your yap.” At times, it looked and sounded like a chess-board argument between two old men in the park.
However, the two old men playing chess last night were the only two who belonged in that argument. Rather than let the two candidates fight their way out themselves, moderator Chris Wallace kept repeatedly inserting himself in the middle, and kept scolding Trump while rarely if ever rebuking Biden. Trump did more interrupting, so a moderator would need to restrain Trump more, but never once did Wallace rebuke Biden for his own interjections or for the name-calling that Biden did.
Worse than that, Wallace broke the rules himself. Just before the debate, Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto explained that everyone had agreed that Wallace would not act as a fact checker on stage. If either man erred or lied, it was up to the other candidate to call that out, not the moderator. Within about the first half hour or so, Wallace began breaking that rule, fact-checking in real time, almost entirely with Trump — except on one notable occasion when Biden couldn’t remember which side of the Green New Deal he was on.
Even allowing that the moderator position in this battle would be a thankless job at best, Wallace didn’t grasp that he and his list of questions weren’t the stars of the show. He would yell to shut down an argument over one question even if it hadn’t been resolved in order to change the subject, seemingly so Wallace could get through his prepared questions. The point of presidential debates, however, isn’t to limit discussion so that the moderator can ask questions. It’s to let voters hear what both candidates have to say to each other as well as us. Wallace isn’t the first moderator to be confused by that, but it seemed especially problematic last night.
Moderators should either let the two men talk, or they shouldn’t be on stage in the first place. Once again, perhaps the presidential commission should rethink the format and the choice of moderators, and refrain from using media figures for the latter at all.
I’ll have more thoughts later on how the candidates themselves did. Trump’s assessment seems pretty accurate, and this exchange demonstrates Wallace’s insistence on skewing the question by offering his editorial spin on Trump’s position rather than just ask, “What’s your plan for health care in a second term?” In fact, it sounds more like an interview question, which is rather ironic since Trump already gave Wallace an interview. Shouldn’t Wallace have saved his let me characterize your position for you questions for the man on stage who refuses to give him an interview?
Update: Trump offered his sympathies on Twitter, at least a little:
Chris had a tough night. Two on one was not surprising, but fun. Many important points made, like throwing Bernie, AOC PLUS 3, and the rest, to the wolves! Radical Left is dumping Sleepy Joe. Zero Democrat enthusiasm, WEAK Leadership! https://t.co/BGbPVHau3M
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2020