This year’s debates are going to be terrible

Because we can’t even agree on what makes a good debate anymore.

The NBC News Commander-In-Chief Forum was a good idea on paper. Two of the biggest problems with modern political debates are the way that they cram too many issues into too little time, so that there isn’t enough room to examine any of them in detail, and the way moderators like to tailor their questions for each of the individual candidates instead of just setting the topic of discussion and letting the debaters challenge each other. Having an extended, one-on-one interview with each candidate should have been an ideal solution.

In practice, the forum somehow made both problems worse. And the reaction to it is a pretty good example of why we can’t have nice things.

Matt Lauer got a lot of grief for treating the candidates differently, and for good reason. His questions to Hillary Clinton were a lot more pointed and occasionally outright hostile than his questions to Donald Trump, and his time management was pretty terrible. But a lot of that is only partially his fault.

The biggest problem was the format for the forum itself. Each candidate’s segment was only half an hour long, and given the number of issues they tried to cram in there wasn’t any more time to engage on most of them than there was in a regular debate. The way half the questions came from members of the audience, complete with a lengthy introduction detailing their personal history and political affiliation, made the time constraints even worse.

Ideally, I would have blocked off a whole second hour, so that each candidate got two 30-minute blocks instead of just one. It seemed at first like Lauer was going to do that: he asked Clinton 4 follow-up questions about her private email server (none of them were very good, as they were basically a variation of “People say what you did was bad, so wasn’t it?”), but by the time he got to questions about Iraq and Syria, he was telling her to hurry up and answer as quickly as possible.

The problem got compounded because Lauer was asking the candidates very different kinds of questions. His approach was apparently to engage Clinton on detail and challenge her for specifics, while with Trump the plan seemed to be to hit him with questions on as broad a range of issues as possible, from immigration to veterans’ care, and see if he could catch him on something he hadn’t thought about.

It kind of makes sense, because Clinton and Trump really do present very different challenges. Clinton answers questions like a politician, bombarding you with details that may or may not directly answer the question depending on how close it is to the message she wants to get across. Trump responds to questioning with a kind of stream-of-consciousness word salad that you’re lucky if it even makes sense.

The forum demonstrated that pretty effectively, in case anyone didn’t know it already. But what it didn’t do was provide insightful information about the candidates’ views on national security. And more importantly, Lauer was holding one candidate to a much lower standard: he clearly didn’t expect Trump to be able to engage with actual policy details (which is more than a little insulting, even if true), so despite asking point-blank if the man would be ready to be president on day one, he didn’t really try to make him prove it.

But the really scary part is that after approximately 300 debates this election season, most of which featured either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, journalists apparently still don’t know how to moderate one. The Washington Post, reacting to the reaction to Lauer’s performance, featured this horrifying aside:

— No one wants to be Candy Crowley, who memorably clashed with Mitt Romney about the particulars of the Benghazi attacks in 2012. The moderators and their employers do not want to be the center of attention. That’s why the bipartisan members of the Commission on Presidential Debates picked them. But they may not be able to avoid it, and it’s very possible that one of their careers could be defined by an unplanned moment. Bernard Shaw, for example, will always be remembered for asking Michael Dukakis in 1988 whether he’d change his position on the death penalty if his wife got raped and murdered. (CNN cut Crowley in 2014.)

Everyone should want to be Candy Crowley. In a debate, the moderator should give the debaters space to critique each other, but step in if it looks like the debaters have hit an impasse and there’s an obvious way to resolve the question. Which is what she did in 2012.

That approach doesn’t make sense for a one-on-one interview, like yesterday’s forum. But since neither NBC nor Matt Lauer seemed to have any clue about what approach did make sense, it’s a bit much to expect someone to figure it out when both candidates are on the stage together.

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