It was a question heard from many corners after a chaotic presidential debate Tuesday night that often devolved into arguments between President Trump and moderator Chris Wallace: Would this be the first and last debate of the 2020 presidential election?
“I wouldn’t be surprised, by the way, if this is the last presidential debate between the president of the United States and the former vice president of the United States,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said immediately following the conclusion of the event on Tuesday.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it more bluntly, calling the debate “a disgrace to the format, an insult to the country, a nearly pointless 90 minutes," as well as “a degradation of the presidency itself.”
Speaking directly to Biden, Bruni said: “Don’t do this again. You showed your willingness. You showed up. But another of these fiascos is beneath you. I’d add that it’s beneath America, if there’s even such a thing anymore.”
But the Biden campaign on Tuesday night immediately threw cold water on the idea of boycotting future debates, with campaign manager Kate Bedingfield telling reporters in a press call that there was no question about Biden’s future participation.
“We are going to the debates, guys,” she said. “We don’t know how many different ways we can say it. Yes, we are going to the debates.”
Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, echoed that sentiment, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that “Joe Biden is never going to refuse to talk to the American people."
But that left open the question about if there would be any format changes to prevent the next forum from spiraling out of the moderator’s control.
In a statement Wednesday, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it would revisit the structure of upcoming debates in response to what unfolded Tuesday.
“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues. The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly. The Commission is grateful to Chris Wallace for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate and intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates,” the statement said.
Currently, the second debate between Trump and Biden, scheduled for Oct. 15, is set up as a town hall-style meeting, which emphasizes questions from voters, not a moderator. According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the structure of the questions and answers will be similar to those in the first debate: Each candidate will get two minutes to answer questions, followed by one minute for “further discussion" facilitated by moderator Steve Scully of C-SPAN.
John Koch, director of debate at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview Wednesday that he was hopeful the nation would avoid a repeat of the first debate when the candidates meet for their town hall.
“It shifts to voters asking questions and I would expect the candidates to be more respectful to average voters than they were to Chris Wallace, and attempt to answer those questions, because I think there’s a lot of risk in acting that way when voters are the ones that are asking the questions," he said.
But there are potential pitfalls to this format, too: During a similar town hall style debate in 2016, Trump hovered close behind former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as she answered questions, in a way that some saw as physically intimidating. Clinton has said she resisted the urge to demand Trump give her space in the middle of the event.
“It was the second presidential debate, and Donald Trump was looming behind me. Two days before, the world heard him brag about groping women. Now we were on a small stage, and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled,” Clinton later wrote in her book, “What Happened."
Some, including former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, have called on the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates to allow moderators cut the microphone of one or both candidates if, for instance, Trump interrupts frequently as he did on Tuesday.
We need to hear tomorrow from the Presidential Commission on Debates. They must outline a plan for how this is going to work going forward including cutting off mics for interrupting. 2020 is far too important to have two more episodes of that. Because that was not a debate.— Robert Gibbs (@Robt_Gibbs) September 30, 2020
That call was echoed by Koch, who said that if the candidates do not adhere to the debate terms, another solution must be found.
But campaigns typically negotiate the terms of the debates ahead of time, down to the smallest details. Before of the Tuesday debate, the campaigns reportedly agreed Trump and Biden would not shake hands or engage in an elbow bump. Trump was chosen to speak first after a coin flip. And the campaigns even worked out which lecterns the candidates would stand at. All of which makes more significant rule changes ― like the ability for the moderator to cut off a candidate’s mic — a tall order.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the terms of the next debate.
Christina Prignano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.