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Muted microphones could dictate presidential debate

Debate moderation is a thankless task. There is, however, value in assigning to human beings the responsibility to arbitrate the discourse on a debate stage. They keep the conversation on track. They encourage interaction between the candidates when necessary and discourage it when not. They seek clarification when a candidate responds to a direct question with a blizzard of superficially authoritative gibberish. Most importantly, they exercise their own discretion about when to intervene in the proceedings. That discretion often vexes partisan supporters of one candidate or another, but, on balance, it helps the audience at home feel like the spectacle they’ve just witnessed was a useful exercise.

The host of tonight’s debate, CNN, has stripped its moderators of some of that discretion. The rules that will govern the first colloquy between Joe Biden and Donald Trump lend that authority to machines. As a helpful video featuring CNN hosts Phil Mattingly and Victor Blackwell explicating the rules for tonight’s exchange revealed, both candidates will have a standard allotted time to respond to a moderator’s question. When that time expires, their microphone will be cut off. If a comprehensive response requires more time or the candidates seek to engage in an extended and illuminating direct discussion with one another, that’s just tough. The machine dictates the terms.

These two famously loquacious candidates are all but destined to have some frustrating encounters with that unforgiving machine tonight. Their respective fans are likely to take issue with the degree to which their candidate was deprived of the opportunity to make his point or take the fight to his opponent. CNN is going to take a lot of the heat from debate watchers who tune into tonight’s programming for the entertainment value alone — the rules are all but certain to make tonight’s exhibition a less thrilling affair than previous cycles. But CNN won’t deserve the flack it will receive from disappointed political hobbyists. These were Joe Biden’s rules — rules that Donald Trump accepted in total. The president’s campaign insisted on a debate that would take place in a television studio without an audience and with automatic microphone cutoffs. If this format proves irritating, blame Biden.

Oddly enough, it’s Biden who is least likely to benefit from his preferred structure. One of the president’s better moments in the first outing between him and Donald Trump in 2020 occurred when the visibly exasperated president told Trump to cease his interminable interrupting — a demand that, at that time, channeled the sentiments of the viewers at home. Biden has deprived himself of a reprise of that moment. Moreover, by denying Trump an audience, Biden may have stolen from the former president the invigorating energy of the crowd on which Trump thrives, but he has also created a setting in which Trump can appear less like a performer and more like a president.

It’s Joe Biden who needs to shake up the race, and he knows it. That is implicit in the Biden camp’s desire for the earliest presidential debate in American electoral history. Therefore, it’s Biden who needs to go on offense tonight. Trump, by contrast, need merely present himself as a stable presence and a viable alternative to Biden’s presidency to hit his marks tonight. It’s ironic that the debate format sought and secured by the incumbent president may ultimately help his opponent achieve his prime directive.

That’s why we can expect the debate rules to annoy partisans and persuadable voters alike. Trump will not get the chance to go full Trump. Biden will be mercifully deprived of the opportunity to be Biden. No one is going to be the candidate their respective fans want them to be.

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