Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Debates Were Not Always Modeled on Cranky Toddlers in a Nursery School

Modern political debates have devolved into shouting matches among the candidates. It wasn't always like this. The New York Times has put together a collection of video clips from debates over the years to show how they have changed. And the change is enormous. In 1960, Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon agreed that they had the same goals for America, they just had different methods of getting there. They were cordial and certainly didn't attack each other personally. They didn't even address each other. They addressed the moderator who asked the questions. The entire focus of their debate was policy issues.

A staple of debates is to ask each candidate about his opponent's biggest weakness. Among others, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and John Kerry didn't take the bait. Gore said: "I think we ought to attack our country's problems, not each other." Bob Dole said: "I don't like to get into personal matters. As far as I am concerned this is a campaign about issues."

It was also common for candidates to say: "I agree with my opponent on X." They also often complimented their opponent on some things. The first few debates were extremely gentlemanly and civil, with the candidates respectful of each other.

Further, they all respected the moderator and stopped talking when their time was up. At least until 1992, when decorum began to fade and the candidates stopped heeding the moderators entirely. In 2008, it went completely off the rails. The rules changed when Barack Obama said: "Ten days ago, John [McCain] said: 'the fundamentals of the economy are sound'." Then the moderator told Obama to say it to McCain's face. Obama then turned to face McCain and said: "John, 10 days ago, you said the fundamentals of the economy are sound." McCain then quipped to the moderator: "Are you afraid I couldn't hear him?" From that moment on, the candidates could address each other. In 2008, they were polite about it. Now it has devolved to a bunch of hungry toddlers fighting over the last banana. Talking over each other, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing became the norm and the moderators loved it.

With Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, all rules went out the window. He just talked over Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and had no respect for the rules. He also stalked Clinton, which broke all the rules.

Can it be fixed? Well, step one would be to give the moderators switches to enable and disable each microphone and give them instructions on how to use them ("green means it is on; red means it is off"). The next step would be to put marks on the stage indicating where the candidate may stand. On a first violation, the moderator gives the candidate a yellow (warning) card and holds it up quite publicly. On a second violation, a penalty is doled out, for example, taking away 1 minute of speaking time on the next topic. On a third violation, stage hands roll an isolation booth onto the stage and give the candidate a choice of being locked in it or being escorted off stage by four burly Secret Service agents. Getting rid of the audience would also be a good idea.

If Trump and Biden are the candidates, it is not clear if there will be any debates next year. Trump tries to simply dominate his opponent and doesn't answer any of the moderator's questions. Biden is a mediocre extemporaneous speaker. The DNC and RNC have to agree to procedures and rules and it is entirely possible that they won't be able to agree in 2024 so there will be no debates. (V)

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