The University of Notre Dame last week pulled out of hosting the first presidential debate, scheduled for Sept. 29, citing “constraints” brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. It was the second school to pull the plug; the University of Michigan said it couldn’t host the debate slated for Oct. 15 because the challenge of trying to reopen the campus safely amid the covid-19 outbreak made it “not feasible.” The two debates have been moved to other locales — Cleveland and Miami, respectively — but the decisions by these schools should serve as a reality check on how to conduct the debates.
Foremost among the issues to be decided by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that convenes the general-election debates, is: why have in-person audiences in the first place? Even if the pandemic weren’t making large indoor gatherings risky, audiences bring no value to the debates. In fact, they detract from the effort to get candidates to engage in a thoughtful exchange about their plans and policies.
The debates during the last presidential election in 2016 reached a particular low with partisans of the candidates — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — shouting out, clapping and generally disrupting the events. Debate moderators tried hard — some were better than others — to remind members of the audience they were there to watch and listen, but that didn’t stop the outbursts. No surprise that Mr. Trump delighted in the reality show cast given to the debate …
The public health issues posed by covid-19 give the debate commission an opportunity to rethink the format so that the debates can become more useful. The first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960, took place in a television studio, not a grand hall, and served its purpose. But tickets to attend the debates have become one more perk for big donors. Universities had been willing to serve as hosts because they, too, could raise money from the prestige of holding such an event.
Businesses, social organizations and other institutions have adjusted to the pandemic with new approaches. The Commission on Presidential Debates should be equally nimble.