BOSTON (CBS) – Remember the 2016 presidential debates? Donald Trump stalking Hillary Clinton around the stage…Clinton calling Trump a Putin “puppet” (his schoolyard response: “no puppet. You’re the puppet”)…Trump ignoring the rules and repeatedly interrupting his opponent over the protests of hapless moderators?
Get ready for another round of debates, UFC style.
“I do expect that the rules will be broken,” said Northeastern University Professor Emeritus Alan Schroeder, an expert on presidential debates. It’s an approach that worked well for Trump back then, even though at the time most observers thought Clinton had prevailed.
“Even though she won the debates by traditional standards, Trump through his affect and his bombast was actually able to dominate the debates,” Schroeder said.
Will things be any different this time around? Joe Biden’s shaky showings in last winter’s Democratic primary cattle calls didn’t reflect his solid history in one-on-one debates, including two as the vice presidential nominee. Notes Schroeder: “In the final debate with Bernie Sanders, the only one-on-one that Biden did, he was fine, reminiscent of the Joe Biden we remember.”
The Biden campaign has made it clear they intend to try to match Trump’s aggressiveness with their own. And the president says he’s not doing anything special to prepare for these debates, and if true, Schroeder suggests that’s a blunder.
“Trump will go into this thing not really ready, he hasn’t debated for four years. There’s a history of incumbent presidents doing very badly in their first debates, and I’m not sure he’s quite ready for what he’s getting into here.”
Unsurprisingly, there was drama over the plans for these debates. The Trump campaign falsely claimed Biden was trying to duck them, then submitted a list of friends in the media world as proposed moderators. (None made the cut.)
But in light of the apparently contentious relationship between Trump and the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bi-partisan group that oversees the events, we wondered: is there a chance some of these debates might not happen?
Schroeder said he expected Biden to follow through even if the first debate doesn’t go well for him. “I think a disastrous first debate for Trump would maybe tempt him not to come back,” Schroeder said.
A prediction: this spin about Trump not bothering with debate prep is just that, an effort to try to lower expectations of his performance. Expect the president to come out swinging, and look for the same from Biden.
It all adds up to a nightmare for the debate moderators, Chris Wallace of Fox News, Steve Scully of C-Span, and Kristen Welker of NBC News. (Susan Page of USA Today will handle the lone vice-presidential debate.) No matter how adroitly they handle 4 ½ hours of mudslinging and (likely) rule breaking, they are sure to be scorched on social media.
Once upon a time, moderating a presidential debate was seen as the apex of a journalist’s career. Now? Be careful what you wish for.