Can Donald Trump and Joe Biden make presidential debates great again?
Donald Trump takes on Joe Biden in September 2020. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Make Presidential Debates Great Again

Biden and Trump have committed to two debates. Can we make sure they don’t just yell at each other?

The presidential race got an unexpected jolt of excitement Wednesday when Joe Biden released a video challenging Trump to a debate. A few “come at me, bro” social media posts later and—like bar patrons circling one another in the parking lot with their fists up wondering “how did I get here”—Biden and Trump found themselves committed to two presidential debates. One in June on CNN (June! Can the political-media complex at least let us enjoy the summer?), and one in September on ABC. 

Last time around, Biden and Trump just yelled over one another, and the highlight of the VP debates was a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head. 

Surely we can do better. But how? 

There’s only one person we want to answer that question: Free Press contributor James Fishback. He runs a high school debate league called Incubate Debate. He literally walks around in a baseball cap that reads “MAKE DEBATE GREAT AGAIN.” Oh, and he has watched every single minute of every televised presidential debate in U.S. history. So we asked James: How can we make presidential debates great again? Here is his bold solution. —Olly Wiseman

The core issue with presidential debates today is the role of the moderator. Instead of facilitating discussion, moderators seem determined to become protagonists, to the detriment of voters at home who expect a real clash of ideas.

My proposed solution is simple: scrap the moderator and revive the debate format that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas used during the 1858 Senate race. 

While current debates are divided into six 15-minute segments, a Lincoln-Douglas debate would invite the first candidate to speak for 60 minutes, the second for 90, and then finally the first for 30. This ensures each candidate fully articulates their positions and critiques the other’s arguments without interruptions.

A cynic might argue that neither candidate could speak for that long. Well, perhaps that’s the point. If they can’t speak that long coherently about the issues voters care about, they can’t be expected to be commander in chief. 

Who will ask questions? No one, but in effect, the voters. Let CNN and ABC set the general theme of the debate (economy, or borders) that are aligned with what voters say they care about in the coming election and invite each candidate to speak for their allotted time.

Could it get messy? Maybe, but not any messier than the incessant interrupting and moderator third-wheeling we’ve seen in recent years.

James Fishback is a writer for The Free Press. Follow him on Twitter @j_fishback. And don’t miss his piece “The Truth About Banned Books.”

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