Midway through Tuesday night’s largely unwatchable presidential debate — the worst in living memory, per longtime Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz — frustrated moderator Chris Wallace sought to reinforce the rules to President Trump.
“Well, and him, too,” Trump retorted, referring to Joe Biden.
“Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has,” Wallace responded.
Wallace’s plea fell upon deaf ears. As he was posing his very next question to Biden, Trump again interjected to dispute the premise — one about Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric in the aftermath of a white supremacist killing a protester in Charlottesville in 2017.
The thing is: Wallace was right. This wasn’t a “both sides” thing. The debate was unwatchable because Trump made it so, via a steady stream of interruptions that robbed the debate of any flow or much in the way of actual substance.
A review of the debate shows the candidates interrupted either Wallace’s questions or their opponent’s time more than 90 times in the 90-minute debate — literally an interruption a minute. But Trump was responsible for more than three-fourths of them: 71, compared with Biden’s 22.
This is a somewhat subjective exercise. So I’ve defined “interruption” to be: Whenever a candidate cut in after Wallace had explicitly given the floor to his opponent, or when the candidate interjected before Wallace finished asking his question. These numbers don’t include what happened after the initial interruptions, in which the candidates repeatedly cut each other off and talked over one another.
These interruptions violated the rules of the debate, which Wallace reinforced at another point in which he sought to restore order.
“Mr. President, your campaign agreed both sides would get two-minute answers, uninterrupted,” Wallace said. “Your side agreed to it, and why don’t you observe what your campaign agreed to as a ground rule?”
The rules for the debate, which are set by the now-embattled Commission on Presidential Debates, say explicitly: “The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.”
Those rules are flawed or, at least insufficient, for a debate involving Trump. As Wallace acknowledged before the debate, the rules didn’t really allow for him to fact-check the candidates (which accrues to the benefit of a president who has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims). They mean Wallace could ask questions, and candidates could then say whatever they wantfor two minutes. (“In those two uninterrupted minutes, Mr. President, you can say anything you want,” Wallace said.) Wallace did at times press the candidates to address his questions, which not coincidentally provided some of the more informative parts of the debate.
Debates are supposed to be interactive, and it’s often productive when the candidates mix it up. But the constant interruptions meant that they were rarely able to assemble cogent thoughts, and viewers were left with an unintelligible mess upon which to base their very important voting decisions.
But to be clear, that was a mess overwhelmingly of Trump’s creation. Biden was more focused on staying disciplined early on and not engaging Trump’s interruptions. But when your opponent doesn’t play by the rules, you risk allowing them to steamroll you. Biden eventually participated in the interrupting but nowhere near on Trump’s scale. And over the last half of the debate — after Wallace’s second plea — Biden rarely interrupted.
As with the candidates’ respective falsehoods, it’s true that neither is completely blameless. But when it comes to the scale of how much they were operating in good faith and their adherence to the rules, there was no comparison on Tuesday night.
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