Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s chaotic first presidential debate has plunged the future of that institution into doubt, prompting organizers to promise an overhaul in a bid to salvage the next two tilts between the candidates.
Mr. Biden himself called on Wednesday for future moderators to have the power to turn off candidates' microphones in order to stop the frequent interruptions that sent the previous night’s showdown spinning out of control.
But some observers are skeptical if any change to the format would be enough to ensure a serious debate when the President spent Tuesday evening flouting rules his campaign had agreed to.
During the 90-minute debate in Cleveland, Mr. Trump repeatedly cut off and heckled both Mr. Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.
Mr. Biden shot back, describing Mr. Trump as a "clown” and "liar,” telling him to “shut up,” and getting in a few interruptions of his own. Mr. Wallace struggled to control the debate, frequently attempting to silence Mr. Trump only to have the President turn his fire on the moderator.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) pledged Wednesday to bring in “additional tools to maintain order” for the next two meetings between the candidates.
“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the commission said in a statement. “The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”
Several U.S. media outlets, citing sources inside the commission, said the main measure under consideration is cutting off the microphones of candidates who interrupt.
Mr. Biden endorsed such a rule change. “I just hope there’s a way in which the debate commission can control the ability of us to answer the question without interruption," he said while campaigning in Ohio.
Mr. Trump opposed any change to the debate rules. “Try getting a new Anchor and a smarter Democrat candidate!” the President tweeted over a headline about the commission’s announcement.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, accused the commission of “changing the rules in the middle of the game” and Mr. Biden of “working the refs.”
The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami and it will use a townhall format with questions from regular voters. The third match-up is set for Oct. 22 in Tennessee.
Robert Barnett, a Washington-based lawyer who has helped Democratic presidential candidates with debate preparation but is not on Mr. Biden’s debate prep team, said the commission should make two changes.
One would be to get rid of the “open debate” portions of the evening, when both candidates are allowed to speak at once. Instead, he said, all speaking time should be broken into two-minute increments, with each candidate taking turns talking. The second change would be to automatically mute the microphone of the candidate not speaking. This would both prevent interruptions and take pressure off the moderator to cut candidates off, he said.
Currently, only some of the candidates' speaking time is reserved to them, while most is open to either candidate, allowing them to directly spar. Their microphones remain live at all times.
“The business of open talk and discussion just doesn’t work this time because of the nature of one of the candidates,” said Mr. Barnett, of the firm Williams & Connolly. “I’ve been doing this for 10 [election] cycles, since 1976, and I’ve never seen anything like this. It doesn’t serve the American voting public.”
Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, said the only previous presidential debates that came close to Tuesday’s disaster were the ones in 2016 between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton. This means that, in the long term, the debates remain viable. But this also makes it difficult to fix the format in this election.
“Trump’s strategy is to subvert the debate,” said Prof. Shroeder, an emeritus professor of journalism at Northeastern University. “The way to fix this is to remove Trump from the stage."
Still, Shannon Bow O’Brien, author of Donald Trump and the Kayfabe Presidency, contended that the interruption tactics did not actually work. She said Mr. Biden took an effective approach by continuing to speak directly into the camera as Mr. Trump interjected.
“Trump got frustrated because he kept trying to dominate and control the flow of conversation," she said. "And Biden and Wallace kept pushing back on him.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.