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Friday, May 7, 2021

Democratic Debate Rules: It’s Complicated

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WASHINGTON — If it’s true that something can be forgiven or overlooked in the course of a presidential campaign — and there are many, it’s probably not that the presidential contenders will be barred from raising their fists, or from having a belly full of raw peanuts, or even from speaking to the lower-tiered voters in the room.

That’s certainly been the fate of Thursday’s debate, which will feature two of the eight people vying to be the Democratic presidential nominee. It’s also been the fate of other occasions in which candidates weren’t allowed to raise their voices or drink out of an open beer can. Perhaps there are moments in presidential debates, even real events, that we can only forgive.

Lately, though, such things have become more common.

Take Wednesday’s second debate, when Joe Biden took over as Democratic vice presidential nominee. It did not help his candidacy that the timing of the event was not unproblematic, or that he would no doubt have wanted to stay tuned to the real debate.

But, given the centrality of this year’s vice presidential candidates to the contest, and given the bizarre campaign his choice to attend the event exacerbated, few would have faulted him if he had begun the debate with a verbatim shout out to the role he would play in trying to help Hillary Clinton get elected president. Biden couldn’t, of course, because his interruptions were grossly interrupting the first one.

Not all presidential debates have been forums for errant behaviors. This one will hold two with early or late primary contests; the remaining four are all one-on-one contests with finite time and relatively small audiences. If that weren’t so, the only way to sustain rules barring any candidate from knocking over a glass of water would be to use a 40-second slot, to encourage each candidate to observe the rules, and to require that candidates focus most of their attention on those brief exchanges in which they were perceived to be doing something wrong.

Why does the average person have trouble understanding the problem?

It’s because we are more attuned to something else that is happening at the moment: somebody else doing something wrong.

Also, for the media, it can be hard to explain why to the public that a candidate who can’t say three simple words in a sentence cannot afford to drink alcohol without consuming a certain quantity. Or that a candidate who cannot speak clearly and clearly also cannot be trusted to speak intelligently and clearly.

To give an example of this week’s unusual style: The main rules for the last two Democratic debates were not to say anything offensive, to say nothing obsequious, to say nothing offensive, to say nothing degrading. But those were talking points in the absence of rules.

Whatever you think of them, the rules keep the conversation going, let people focus on the substance of the candidates’ answers, force everybody to ask good questions, and build an audience for the general election debate.

Why doesn’t the media follow these more appropriate rules?

Because the media have a virtue that no politician has: The public cares deeply about how they’re perceived. And these rules end up having the opposite effect of what the rule-makers intended.

Which is not to say that yelling is always unwise. In presidential debates, it’s inevitable to heckle the participants, or get a reaction, or at least flagrantly break the rules. But rules like those in the two previous Democratic debates are not only overly formal, but are also self-defeating. They put on display the worst kind of emotions that a presidential campaign is supposed to counteract: the excitement, anticipation, and certain bile you associate with campaigning for a nomination, and the belief that just saying whatever you please is an acceptable form of political speech.

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