Commentary: To avoid another spectacle, rules of US presidential debate must change

Commentary: To avoid another spectacle, rules of US presidential debate must change

The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was a disaster. The next one needs to have stronger safeguards against Trump’s fraudulent claims attacking the integrity of the election, say Steven R Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr.

US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden
US President Donald Trump and  Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate on Sep 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. (Photo: Morry Gash/Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

SINGAPORE: In an already rotten year, the first US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden stands out as one of 2020’s worst days for the US.

For a start, never before has the sitting President questioned the fairness of an election in which they seek re-election.

But on Tuesday (Sep 29), Donald Trump repeatedly questioned the integrity of the voting process and pushed off direct questions about whether he would accept the election results if he lost, among others.

The conduct of the debate was also shocking. The President ignored the debate’s moderator, veteran journalist Chris Wallace, when he tried to enforce the rules to stop Trump from talking over Biden during the latter’s allocated time.

Worse, Trump’s constant interruptions and insults goaded Joe Biden into losing his cool at times, calling Trump at various times a “clown” and a “liar” and telling him to “shut up”.

Never in the history of the country have the two candidates for the highest office engaged in such appalling behaviour.

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Bad enough it happened once. For the sake of the integrity of the elections and the office of the US presidency, drastic changes need to be made.

First and foremost, the debate platform cannot be used again to question the inviolability of the US presidential elections, or put the US again on the precipice of becoming an international humiliation.

Facebook announced that next day it will prohibit ads delegitimising the outcome of the election such as those calling vote by mail fraudulent or alleging widespread fraud.

The Commission on Presidential Debates needs to do the same when it comes to the remaining debates.

SO MUCH FOR THE STRUTURE OF THE DEBATES

Intentionally, the US Commission on Presidential Debates has very few rules for its contests. 

Election 2020 Trump
With the American flag reflected in the teleprompter, President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Duluth International Airport, Sep 30, 2020, in Duluth, Minn. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

They leave it up to the moderator and the candidates to engage. They have moved away from highly regulated formats such as when these debates dictated 2-minute openings, 90-second rebuttals and 15-second responses where candidates can tackle rebuttals in order to create 15-minute chunks where the candidates could engage each other. 

They clearly need to rethink that.

Even so, the President refused to follow the few already agreed upon rules set forth by the Commission which allows each candidate to present their initial argument.

And even with new rules on the structure, it’s questionable whether the Commission and the next moderator can enforce the process of a debate that provides for a thoughtful, constructive back-and-forth on key issues close to the hearts of voters and disallows heckling or disruptions.

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The Trump and Biden campaigns seem set on attending the next one, so the Commission needs to step up beyond that vague announcement they would adopt a new structure on Wednesday.

PROTECTING AGAINST FALSE CLAIMS

Apart from ensuring each candidate has the chance to speak during allocated times, the arrangements of the next debate must include steps to safeguard against false claims about the integrity of the election.

Just look at how much mail-in voting came under fire from Trump this time, despite its use in the US dating back nearly 150 years to the American Civil War.

When asked if he would respect the election results whichever way it swings, Trump said he “can’t go along” with an election result based on millions of mailed ballots, particularly if many of those ballots are received and counted after Election Day.

Trump continued to allege on Tuesday that the 2020 election must be rigged. He claimed vote by mail “is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen”.

Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden and US President Donald Trump
Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on Sep 29, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Jim Watson and Saul Loeb)

In the middle of a pandemic, vote by mail is the essential way to ensure Americans can exercise their fundamental right to vote without putting their health in jeopardy.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands have already cast their ballots that way. Trump himself just voted by mail in Florida’s primary, and his campaign promotes it for its own supporters.

SAFEGUARDING THE SANCTITY OF THE ELECTIONS

Why is Trump attacking the foundation of American democracy?

Everyone knows many more Democrats will vote by mail this year than Republicans. As such, those who vote in-person will be disproportionally Republican and those that vote by mail will be mainly Democrats.

Trump knows that in 23 states, votes received by mail are not counted until after Election Day.

These mail-in votes make up a huge proportion of the total votes cast. As the moderator highlighted at the debate, a quarter of all votes in the 2018 mid-term came through mail-in ballots. It will be even more this year.

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Both things considered, the chances of a “blue shift” occurring and Biden winning once all mail-in votes are tallied are significant, even if Trump leads on Election Night after the in-person votes are counted.

TIME FOR THE COMMISSION TO STEP UP

It’s plain and simple. No one should be given the opportunity to undermine the integrity of the electoral system at a national debate. Candidates must not be given the chance to make fraudulent claims that corrode the very core of US democracy.

The next presidential debate will occur on Oct 15 and will have a town hall format. Trump and Biden are supposed to answer questions from uncommitted Miami-area voters.

Following this week’s debacle, the Commission said it would change the format of the next debate to provide a more orderly exchange of views.

More than a format change must occur.

Locals in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, watch the first debate between president Donald Trump and his
Locals in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, watch the first debate between president Donald Trump and his challenger Joe Biden. (Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss)

Procedural changes also can only go so far to shackle candidates and prevent them from talking over one another.

What will the moderator do when Trump interrupts Biden again? Mute his mic?

If we go down that road, if Trump violates the social distancing rules and gets into Biden’s personal space, should he just be buzzed out?

That won’t work. This is not a game show.

Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan met just once on the debate stage. It will be better for the US to once again have a single debate than live through another event like Biden-Trump debate number one.

It’s not enough for the Commission to change the way it is moderated, with clearer rules and penalties for non-compliance.

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The Commission must also require signed statements that no candidate will use the national platform of the Commission on Presidential Debates to attack the integrity of the vote.

And, if it then happens, end of debate. No warning should be given.

If the Commission on Presidential Debates cannot insist on that rule, then they should just cancel the spectacle.

Simultaneous fact checks included in the broadcast would be nice, but that’s not important.

The Commission needs to get its act together or we will sit through another 90 minutes of misery.

We can survive that. But we cannot again witness attacks which result in the degradation of US democracy. The stakes are too high.

Steven R Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr served in the Clinton administration as Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Transportation and White House Cabinet Secretary, respectively. Mr Okun serves as senior adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates in Singapore. Mr Marshall practices law in Washington.

Source: CNA/sl

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