It Should Have Been a Zoom Call
It’s time to modernize the debates for the 2020s
The presidential debate last night was anything but presidential. Plainly put, it was an absolute shitshow. Jake Tapper said it best: “That was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.” The political turducken that the world was subjected to on that Cleveland stage was no less than a disgusting spectacle — one that left both left and right annoyed, upset, and downright embarrassed. It was clear by minute two that we have stopped exporting democracy to the world. We now export mayhem.
It is no surprise that the debates of 2020 feel just like the rest of this godawful year. But the obvious recap is still important. Trump was ready for a fight and knows only one way to debate: interrupt until you drive the other person so crazy that they lose their mind. His goal was singular: get Joe Biden to fumble and melt down. Joe did not. In fact, for the first half-hour, Biden barely even looked at Trump, preferring to talk directly to us at home. Trump was juvenile, insolent, and over-the-top — even for him.
Joe was not without his flaws, though. He missed major opportunities to hammer home very simple messages. What was not said: “Your rally killed Herman Cain.” “You didn’t cause the virus but you caused the recession.” “You are a liar.” (Instead, he opted for a less direct alt refrain: “That is simply not true.”) Absent, as well, was a message point about the Obama administration leaving behind a pandemic playbook and the fact that the Trump administration shut down global pandemic response teams. You and I have heard those points before, but they bear repeating on a national stage.
Beyond the unsatisfying content of the 90-minute yelling match, it is its form that also failed us. It was clear that the whole “debate” should have just been a Zoom call. I don’t mean that literally. The evening did, though, make painfully obvious just how antiquated the traditional debate format really is. I am a purist, at heart, and would love to believe that two people vying for the most important job in the world should be able to adhere to basic rules, but manners and etiquette were absent. There is not a single professional in the world who could have behaved similarly who would not have been let go the next day.
It seems the right moment to consider modernizing the debates so that they reflect the times and employ technologies and best practices that we are all now using to communicate. It’s 2020. Eight-year-olds are savvy enough to shoot, edit, and post videos. Babies swipe the TV thinking that it will advance the screen. Global companies are being run on wifi from our dining room tables. Yet, the most technologically advanced we got last night was using a split screen (introduced in the 1960s). Wow. Magic.
Here are three capabilities that Zoom offers us that we should consider using in our presidential debates:
- Mute. Chris Wallace needed a mute button. Every professional in America now knows how best to employ the mute/unmute Zoom feature to make conversation less messy. There is no reason the debate moderator should have to play referee when the candidate behaves like a petulant child. Each segment of the conversation began with a two-minute response from each of the candidates, followed by open discussion. As one delivered his opening argument, the other should have been muted. Why do both get to hold the conch? Even Ralph, Piggy, and the boys of The Lord of Flies figured out a democratic way to moderate public speaking.
- Share Screen. On Zoom, it’s simple. You share the screen when you want to present a document to everyone else. Let’s use documents. Yes, debate is primarily verbal, but we live in a highly visual society and interact daily in a world full of well-crafted slides. It’s about time the candidates used PowerPoint to make their arguments. Andrew Cuomo utilized it brilliantly in his daily coronavirus briefings. Each candidate should be required to lay out his (or her) case to the American people, in a formal presentation. Give them a set number of slides per topic, a set number of bullets, and a set font size. If my 11-year-old nephew has to prep a PowerPoint for school, our presidential candidates can use it to state their case.
- Video. If you want to share a video on Zoom, you share your screen or you send the link to the video in the group chat. Much precious time could have been saved last night if Chris Wallace had been able to do the same when referring to something Trump or Biden previously said or did. Instead, it was a swampy tennis match of “he said/he said.” The moderator should have the ability to project a video or tweet on a large screen, visible to the candidates and to the home audience. It’s a lot harder to say, “I never said that,” when there’s media to prove that, in fact, you did. You can argue, but you just look foolish if the evidence is there for all to see.
Where do we go from here? The two remaining debates are sure to be equally infuriating all around. Last night was, unfortunately, a sign of the times. We live in a fragmented and impulse-driven media landscape. Decorum is gone. Formality is gone. Respect for our institutions and traditions is gone. Our politics now reflect the society they represent. But as we learn to navigate the challenges of this future world and employ simple tech techniques to help, we should think about how to use them on the national stage. If the debate itself is modern, the format should be, too.