For two whole minutes, while an entire nation looked on in wonder and wicked amusement.
The fly won the debate, and here’s the thing: The fly deserved to.
That is how useless the debates have become as a function of television. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which should have done the responsible thing and canceled the in-person event after last week’s atrocious — and possibly infectious — display at the presidential debate in Cleveland, needs to look long and hard at its beloved TV format and how it has devolved into something uncivil, unproductive and unnecessary.
An announcement by the commission Thursday morning that next week’s debate between President Trump and Joe Biden would be conducted as a virtual town hall addresses the safety issue (with Trump already saying he won’t participate), but not the deeper problem of a format that has lost its way.
The vice president, while only seeming to be better behaved than his boss, still wrested time away from Harris and the long-held ideals of the format to interrupt, rebut and obfuscate.
The debate’s moderator, USA Today’s Susan Page, failed in largely the same way Chris Wallace of Fox News did in Cleveland, by relying on a polite request to quit talking as a means to get the vice president to quit talking.
What decade is she living in? Not the 2020s. Even Brecklynn Brown, the Utah eighth-grader whose essay was chosen as the basis of the debate’s final question — about political bickering — would know that Pence deserved a strong shaddup or two, or more. “Thank you, Mr. Vice President,” Page repeated dozens of times, which only seemed to encourage him to keep on. “Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Vice President.” (Pence apparently hears “thank you” as an invitation to keep talking.) Last week, I thought the solution might be mute switches controlled by the moderator. This week, Twitter was suggesting air horns.
And while soaring amounts of coronavirus infections across the country all but forced the commission to make the next debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, a virtual one, nothing seemed more pathetic about Wednesday’s debate than the tiny, arch-shaped plexiglass barriers meant to protect Harris and Pence during 90 minutes of heavy talking — barriers that were small enough that either candidate could have taken theirs home as one of those Lucite trophies that people in their sphere accept all the time. (As for Page, her onstage spot seemed to be the riskiest seat in the house.)
Debating, such as we’ve known it, is done. It’s for certain high school students who hope to go to law school someday and no one else. Instead, the commission should consider hosting a 90-minute Q&A event that is split into four segments. Each candidate is asked questions and answers them for 22 uninterrupted minutes — uninterrupted, because the other candidate is offstage, waiting their turn.
At home, viewers watch the candidate’s answers while, at the bottom of the screen, a continuous stream of live fact-checking scrolls past, compiled by a varied yet highly qualified army of professionals, who will let us know how closely the candidate’s answers square with reality — which, despite Pence’s galling attempt at using Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s classic “you’re entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts” line, is still a thing. Facts are out there. News outlets and nonpartisan research centers have spent years improving the art of fact-checking; let’s put their intelligence and the technology to use here and see if they can help bring America’s blood pressure down to a healthier level. (On their second turn of 22 minutes, each candidate can rebut and refute all she or he likes — or take more questions. The time is theirs to waste.)
The point is, we need new ideas and new formats — something beyond “town hall” and the bar stools.
Just as we had been warned by former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (the only person who has debated both Harris and Pence at different times, and played the role of Pence in Harris’s debate preparations), the vice president has a certain skill for spreading and smoothing the layers of just about any lie he wishes to tell, as impressively as any winner on a TV bake-off show.
And just as Harris’s supporters had feared, their candidate had to rein herself in amid all the patronizing interruptions, lest she provide fodder for all the sexist and racist naysayers out there waiting for her to snap, to lose control, to become that angry woman. The candidates were judged less by their answers and more by a lone insect, discussions of pinkeye (again, from viewers who were scrutinizing Pence and kept noticing the redness in his left eye) and whether either candidate could play a president on TV. What we got Wednesday was more proof that the old ways of debate are thoroughly broken.