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OPINION

Advice to presidential debate moderators: Lay down the law

If you’ve ever raised a child or trained a dog, you understand that clear boundaries of behavior must be established.

The first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump will be held Sept. 29.
The first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump will be held Sept. 29.AP

Will the upcoming presidential debates between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden inform the electorate about the candidates’ stamina, grasp of policy, and ability to think on their feet? Or will they be ghastly, incoherent shouting matches, generating heat but no light?

The answer may depend on the moderators, Chris Wallace of Fox News, who hosts the first debate on Tuesday, Sept. 29; Steve Scully of C-Span; and Kristen Welker of NBC News. Only Wallace has moderated a presidential debate before, in 2016.

As the moderator of numerous live TV debates for federal, state, and municipal offices over the past two decades — many of them high-stakes and contentious, such as the pivotal first Scott Brown/Elizabeth Warren showdown in 2012 and the raucous “tell your father” dust-up between Joe Kennedy and Ed Markey — here are some observations that may be useful.

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Lay down the law. If you’ve ever raised a child or trained a dog, you understand that clear boundaries of behavior must be established, with consequences for violating them. Just before airtime, I always remind candidates of our rules, and explain that if they break them or otherwise ignore my directions, they risk entering my “cocoon of horror.”

No one has ever tried it, including faltering and fringe candidates for whom the debate is a last, best chance to shake up the race. If one ever does, they can expect a sharp, embarrassing rebuke and a pointed bonus question: How can you pretend to be a decent senator/governor/mayor if you can’t follow simple debate rules?

Be ready to take the heat. In this era of intense media mistrust, a confrontation between moderator and candidate will send social media into orbit. During a 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial debate, Grace Ross of the Green Party complained that my decision to allow the two major-party candidates to engage in direct back-and-forth for extended periods was unfair. Angry Green e-mails poured in afterward, so we reviewed each candidate’s total talk time. Ross had the second-most, trailing then-Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey by less than a minute.

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In sports, the best referees are the ones no one notices, and no moderator wants to become a headline. But it seems unlikely that this year’s moderators won’t have to step in.

In the first 2016 debate, where Trump almost immediately began interjecting snide comments during Hillary Clinton’s speaking time, moderator Lester Holt did nothing, and the behavior accelerated. Wallace, Scully, and Welker should avoid repeating that mistake, even if it blows up their Twitter mentions.

Don’t make the test too easy. When moderators ask totally predictable questions that have been staples of the campaign, they encourage candidates to merely regurgitate their well-rehearsed stump speeches. Slick politicians can and will quickly pivot away from a question that surprises them, but viewers can factor that evasion into their evaluation.

Good questions needn’t be complicated. In a 2002 gubernatorial debate, I asked the candidates how much they had given to charity in the previous year. Republican nominee Mitt Romney described how he tithed 10 percent of his income to the Mormon Church and detailed other generous donations. Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien could cite only a donation to a charity auction — lunch with herself. Edge: Romney.

How Biden and Trump react to unexpected questions this fall can offer voters valuable information, especially given the accusations of diminished capacity against both men.

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Let them actually debate. Too many debates are side-by-side joint interviews, where moderators step on evolving engagement, enforce time limits too strictly, and insist on moving on to new topics just when things are getting interesting. For instance, the first and third presidential debate formats call for six 15-minute segments, presumably focusing on six different topics. But is 15 minutes enough time for a fully-realized debate about the nation’s coronavirus pandemic response, economic recovery, or climate change?

In the 2018 WBZ US Senate debate between Senator Elizabeth Warren and GOP nominee Geoff Diehl, we opened with a question about character. After a brief exchange of sharp elbows, the candidates spent close to half an hour debating health care, tax policy, social security, economic development, and trade, moving organically between topics with minimal moderator intervention.

We didn’t get in all our questions that night, but so what? If the discussion is lively and informative, why not let it breathe?

Don’t try to fact-check. Trump’s indifference to truth may make this especially frustrating, but the job of calling out candidate lies or blunders should fall to their opponent in real time and the news media afterward. Academic research shows post-debate media coverage shapes voter perceptions more than the event itself. And as presidential debate historian Alan Schroeder of Northeastern University said in an interview, “If the moderator tries to fact-check every statement that is made in the debate, then that’s all the debate becomes, a series of allegations and counterfactual evidence, and that doesn’t serve anyone.”

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These are going to be long nights for the three presidential debate moderators. You might say they’re about to enter their very own cocoon of horror.

Jon Keller is the political analyst for WBZ-TV and CBSN Boston, and a columnist for MASSterList.