It's certainly welcome news that the Commission on Presidential Debates is trying to avoid a repeat of the noisy chaos that was the first Trump-Biden debate by muting a candidate's microphone when his opposite is speaking.
Go ahead, call it the Donald Rule. It will apply only at certain designated times, not during the entire debate. (The Commission floated that idea and backed down after the Trump campaign objected.) The rule is a step to try to give moderator Kristen Welker more tools to deal with disruptive behavior in tonight's debate (scheduled from 9 to 10:30 p.m. ET, from Belmont University in Nashville) than were available to Chris Wallace in the first Trump-Biden meeting, without, as the Commission was careful to note, changing already-agreed-upon debate rules. Tonight each candidate will be given an uninterrupted two minutes to address these topics: Fighting Covid-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership.
Outside of these two-minute safe zones, it's apparently still Thunderdome.
The mute button seems like a perfect solution to the problem of people being jerks in public forums, and it's one other venues are turning to as well. Our editor-at-large Kimberly Weisul reports that her local school board recently adopted a rule that members' microphones would be muted when another board member is speaking, and "it was awesome." So there is clear support from at least some quarters for this kind of fix.
Still, trying to resolve this conflict by muting the mic of a disruptive speaker is a disappointment, because it's a typically American tactic to try to find a technological solution to what is a human problem. Turning off a microphone while another candidate is speaking works, sure, but doesn't address why someone is interrupting, and doesn't try to deal with the behavior as much as put a sock on it. This solution takes what President Trump actually did in the first debate--purposely interrupting Joe Biden or Chris Wallace at least 128 times, or once every 24 seconds--and treats rudeness like it was some sort of electrical interference. ("Listen, Joe, we're getting a lot of noise from the other microphone over there. Let's turn that one off, OK?") It ignores the fact that one candidate actively tried to sabotage the debate, like a losing boxer who keeps ignoring the ref and continues to clinch to tie up his opponent's arms.
Further, muting the sound isn't likely to work--Trump doesn't need a live mic to disrupt the proceedings. He could yell across the room to try to rattle Biden. He could whip out his phone and start watching TikTok videos. Or live tweet. Honestly, given the track record, it wouldn't be surprising if Trump barbecued and ate a goat while Biden was speaking.
As flawed as they are, the really valuable thing about these debates is that they are clarifying moments that tell us a lot about everyone involved. The first debate showed in stark detail how each candidate reacts under stress. And both the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate showed us moderators who were completely unequal to the task of managing a conversation in which one side continuously acts in bad faith.
What the Donald Rule also shows, though, is something about the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission has long been criticized as being too subservient to the demands of the opposing campaigns. The original sponsor of the debates, the League of Women Voters, withdrew its sponsorship during the 1988 election campaign over what it deemed as collusion between the Bush and Dukakis campaigns to control the process. The current Commission assented to the campaigns' demands. What we're left with is an organization that most often produces something that's a cross between an actual debate and a commercial for each candidate.
That approach only works as long as both parties keep their agreements. It falls apart if one party follows the rules and one subverts them. What the Commission is trying to do in giving each candidate uncluttered airtime, at least when they are making their prepared statements, is to force everyone to follow the rules, even if they have shown they are unwilling to actually do so. Dealing with the surface problem without addressing the root cause is no way to improve the results. As any good business leader could tell you, that's just a recipe for more of the same.