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Paul S. Hayes Trump-Biden debate will have muted mics. That's bad for the candidates, and voters.

Presidential debates are supposed to educate voters by allowing them to see how candidates perform in one of the campaign's few unmediated spaces.
Image: Muting Trump
At the first debate, President Donald Trump interrupted both the moderator and his opponent more than 120 times, roughly one interruption for every 24 seconds they were speaking.Adrian Lam / NBC News

We’ve all done it. Sometimes with good intentions, perhaps to save a conversation going off track. Other times, we know it’s impolite, but we just can’t help it. What the other person is saying is flat-out wrong! But although we all interrupt at times, most of us appreciate there’s a point at which interruptions don’t just add to or subtract from a conversation; they define it — and the person doing the interjecting.

"Electronically mediating" Trump or any candidate isn’t the solution. If a candidate thinks he or she is above the rules, we should let the voters see it.

So it was with the first presidential debate, in which more than 73 million voters watched President Donald Trump interrupt both the moderator and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, more than 120 times, roughly one interruption for every 24 seconds the moderator and Biden were speaking. And Biden returned fire, interrupting dozens of times himself. The resulting spectacle was a source of national consternation. The reviews were, at best, unkind.

As a result, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the private, “nonpartisan” organization responsible for organizing these encounters, found itself deluged by demands to allow future moderators to mute the microphones of the candidates. After the Trump campaign rejected that idea as an attempt to tilt the playing field toward Biden, the commission announced Monday night that it would be splitting the baby.

On Thursday, six different topics will be addressed in six 15-minute segments. At the beginning of each segment, both candidates will deliver a 2-minute opening during which their opponent’s microphone will be muted. Then, both microphones will be turned on for “open discussion” for the remainder of the segment, during which “[t]ime taken up during any interruptions will be returned to the other candidate."

This might seem like a reasonable — and welcome — arrangement to allow voters a better opportunity to hear the unbroken thoughts of each candidate, but it actually does them a great disservice. Micromanaging the candidates in this manner negates an important function of a debate for both the audience and the participants.

The purpose of presidential debates is to educate voters by allowing them to observe how candidates perform in one of the few unmediated spaces they'll inhabit during the campaign — and perhaps the only venue in which they’ll engage directly with each other. Although as a debate professional, I hate seeing a conversation devolve into chaos, "electronically mediating" Trump or any candidate isn’t the solution. If a candidate thinks he or she is above the rules, we should let the voters see it.

If we trust voters to resolve debates over the complexities of health care policy and international affairs, we should also trust them to assess what it means when candidates cannot abide by the rules, resist the urge to insult their opponent or are otherwise incapable of participating in a respectful and productive public dialogue on topics of importance to the American people.

Indeed, polls after the first debate suggest that is exactly what viewers keyed into — and knocked Trump for. Most analyses of social media trends, focus groups and polling indicated Biden “won.” There's little reason to think it was because voters decided Biden was better on policy (one poll after the debate determined that only 17 percent of the respondents found the exchange “informative”). Rather than judging the debate on substance, it seems likely voters responded primarily to Trump’s poor conduct. A focus group of independent voters organized by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz described Trump as “horrid,” “chaotic,” “unpolished,” “crackhead,” “ehh,” “unhinged,” “bully,” “arrogant” and “typical.”

There’s also the likelihood that the compromise position put forward by the debate commission does little to achieve its intended goal. The muting won’t on its own prevent disruptive interruptions, which might still be picked up by an opponent’s microphone. Even if they aren’t, interruptions may still disrupt the opposing candidate, who might not know whether the audience heard the heckling. Voters, in turn, may not understand why a candidate is pausing, stumbling or otherwise reacting. Worse, the “open discussion” interlude may be understood by both candidates and voters as an invitation for interruptions during the remainder of the segment.

In addition, the role of moderators will be changed in a way that will likely fail to curb the disruptions, and might undermine the perception that they are honest brokers. Returning time to the interrupted candidate for a 1-second cut in could well be ineffective and difficult to administer, and is often beside the point. In the first debate, the candidates enjoyed roughly equal speaking time despite one candidate being responsible for 75 percent of the constant interruptions And the new approach still places the moderator in the position of having to arbitrate interruptions in ad hoc fashion that may seem biased.

After all, interrupting one’s opponent during a debate can confer several advantages. First, it allows debaters to “steal” speech time from their opponent. Second, it disrupts their rhetorical momentum by inserting a countervailing sentiment. Third, it makes it harder for the audience to follow an opponent’s argument. Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, it disrupts an opponent’s thoughts, making it more difficult to deliver a concise, effective statement. For the roughly 3 million Americans who stutter, a challenge Biden faces, repeated interruptions can be particularly draining.

At the same time, speaking over an opponent may backfire in spectacular fashion. Everyone can relate to being interrupted and few enjoy the experience. Excessive interruptions rarely endear debaters to an audience that is not already predisposed toward their positions.

What all this means is that there is no perfect solution, since no debate can proceed smoothly without willing participants. But there are better options.

The first is structural: The commission could extend the speaking times, have candidates sit at tables without microphones on either side of the stage, and ask candidates to rise to speak from podiums located at center stage. Physical spacing would enforce turn-taking free of bias.

Second is moderating the interruptions rather than the interrupting candidates. Once interruptions cross a threshold publicized in advance, the moderator could immediately pause the debate to deliver a short scripted statement noting the interference was, say, the 10th by the candidate before restating the question and asking the interrupted candidate to continue with 15 added seconds of speaking time.

For most candidates, this approach would provide a sufficient deterrent to minimize additional interruptions. For this particular debate, however, the obvious concern is that the debate might slow to a crawl or grind to a halt altogether. But if a candidate chooses that path, how is that a worse result than the first debate?

The role of moderators will be changed in a way that will likely fail to curb the disruptions, and might undermine the perception that they are honest brokers.

This approach would sharpen the ability of viewers to know the rules are being enforced in an objective and even-handed fashion. It would make clear that rule breaking was occurring, it would quantify the extent in purely objective terms, and it would allow voters to decide for themselves what to make of it. And it would provide a meaningful response to disruptive behavior that might prevent interrupted candidates from feeling they have to fight fire with fire to avoid being steamrolled.

As a debate educator, I deeply regret that our country is faced with the question of how to ensure candidates for the highest office in the land engage in a respectful and productive public dialogue. I believe we deserve better. But that’s for voters to decide. Our best path forward is trusting them to do so.