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Kaine-Pence debate: nothing new, too much interrupting

The format and relative passivity of moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS turned it into a train wreck with the candidates talking over each other too much.

Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence speaking during Tuesday night's debate.
REUTERS/Andrew Gombert

To me, the veep debate was a zero. Didn’t learn anything. Doubt it changed many minds. The format and relative passivity of moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS turned it into a train wreck with the candidates talking over each too much. Maybe I’m turning into a neat freak in my old age (my wife will testify against that idea) but I don’t see why time limits can’t be imposed and enforced, by turning off the violator’s microphone if necessary.

Democratic veep nominee Tim Kaine was by far the guiltier one on the interrupting score. On the other hand, he had a clear strategy, and he implemented it. He came in with a long list of bad things Donald Trump has said or done and kept reciting the list and daring Republican nominee Mike Pence to defend them. Pence didn’t so much defend them as deny them, stating that Trump’s position was not what Kaine said it was and/or that Trump hadn’t really said the things Kaine said he said.

The fact checkers will help us with this in the days ahead. I’m pretty sure Trump did or said most of the things Kaine alleged, although in many instances Trump has also said the opposite. Trump is not only a model of inconsistency and of the ill-considered tweet, but he does not hesitate, when he reverses himself, to deny that his previous position or statement ever existed. Pence followed that practice but in a much more amiable manner.

Speaking of tweets, Trump live-tweeted the debate last night. The tweets were judicious, presidential, fair-minded and highly illuminating. Or maybe not. You can read them all here.

Taunting Trump in absentia

The second part of Kaine’s strategy was to taunt Trump, in absentia, over the unreleased tax returns. A great many of the matters in dispute, if they had anything to do Trump’s business practices, could be resolved, Kaine said over and over, if Trump would do what all presidential nominees over recent decades have done and release his tax returns so Trump’s claims could be proven or disproven. One of his pretty good zingers was to point out that Trump required Pence to turn over his tax returns so they could be vetted before he was offered a place on the ticket, but Trump won’t turn over his tax returns so the American people can vet him properly before turning over the keys to the Oval Office. Fair point.

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Kaine also alleged that the Trump campaign is based on insulting everyone and everything. Pence pulled the old I’m-rubber-and-you’re-glue defense, but he brought up only one major Clintonian insult, the recent blunder when Clinton described half of Trump’s supporters as being in a “basket of deplorables” and “irredeemable.” Fair point, although it’s just one giant insult to compare with hundreds by Trump, but Pence suggested that it was worse than all of Trump’s insults because it applied to such a large group. Let’s not try to do the math on that. Kaine’s rebuttal was that Clinton had immediately regretted the insult and apologized for it, and he challenged Pence to cite any Trump insult for which he has apologized. Pence didn’t go there. If you didn’t watch the debate, I trust this is making you glad you didn’t.

This seems like a good time to bring up an audacious and perhaps unrealistic proposition for debate reform, which I personally would welcome. There’s an outfit called “Intelligence Squared,” also known as IQ2, that runs very smart, substantive debates, which follow a traditional debate format practiced at Oxford University. You may have caught some of these on public radio.

They usually have debate teams, but it would work fine with just two candidates. Or the presidential candidate and running mate could form a team. That would be cool.

One debate = one issue

There is one stated resolution under debate. It would have to be something important on which the candidates disagreed. For the sake of illustration in the video that IQ2 put out to explain how it works, let’s say the proposition was: “The United States intervenes abroad too often.” Candidate A gets an opening statement making the case for “yes” on the resolution. Then Candidate B makes an opening statement for “no.”

Then the there’s a second round, in which each side responds to and tries to show the weak spots in the other’s opening statement. Then each side gets a closing statement. There are strict time limits for each turn. Neither side can interrupt. If you tried to picture this as a replacement for the current version of presidential debates, and you assumed there would be three debates, as is the current norm, (or maybe even four, if it included the running mates) you would need a method for determining what the three or four “resolutions” would be. Here’s a thought: Let each ticket choose the topic for one debate, then the commission would choose the topics for the rest.

When they do these Oxford-style debates, there is a live audience. They ask for a vote of the studio audience before the debate, then a second vote after the debate, and whichever side has gained more converts to its position is ruled the winner. If something like this were to be tried in presidential campaigns, there’d be no need to take a vote of the studio audience. The voting could still be reserved for all of us on Election Day.

A few months ago, via the online petition site, IQ2 put a petition online, seeking signatures to urge the commission that runs presidential debates to adopt something like this format. As of late last night, it had attracted 63,956 signatures. Here’s the page that has the petition and also a short video at the top illustrating how it works.

Not to be too pessimistic, but it won’t happen this year for presidential debates. Maybe next time. I don’t see how it could fail to be an improvement.