WASHINGTON — The 2020 presidential debates likely will end not with a whimper, but a mute button.
The lone debate so far didn’t lack drama. Held on Sept. 29 in Ohio, it stood out for President Donald Trump’s frequent interruptions of rival Joe Biden and the former vice president calling the commander in chief a “clown.”
The second debate, set for Oct. 15 in Miami, didn’t even happen. A week after Trump announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced the event would be held virtually. In protest, Trump said he would skip the event. The candidates held dueling town hall meetings instead.
Thursday night’s debate, held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, starting at 6 p.m., offers a different twist. To cut down on interruptions, each candidate’s microphone will be turned off for the first two minutes of his rival’s opening remarks in each of six segments. Both microphones will be open during the rest of the segments. The new rule was designed to “ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” while allowing “open discussion” after initial remarks.
A Fox News analysis of the first debate tallied 145 Trump interruptions over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, compared with 67 Biden interruptions over Trump and Wallace.
Biden told WISN-TV the move was “a good idea” and called for “more limitations on us not interrupting each other.” Trump objects to the change but will participate anyway.
Will rules help?
Speech coach and communications specialist Ruth Sherman told the Review-Journal the first debate was “over the top.” She said she wasn’t sure if the new rule will prove an improvement or a mistake. Viewers still could be distracted because a speaker’s microphone might pick up a rival’s remarks and viewers might not be able to look away from “watching mouths move.”
“They did it on purpose,” Trump said Tuesday on “Fox &Friends” of the commission’s muting move.
Trump complained that the parents of Thursday night’s moderator, NBC White House correspondent Kristen Welker, were Democratic donors and that Welker closed down her Twitter account to avoid scrutiny ahead of the final debate.
Welker announced the topics for the 90-minute debate: fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership. Trump complained that her list gives foreign policy short shrift.
Former chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, Ken Khachigian, agreed. Welker’s topics overlap the first debate’s fare: the candidate’s records, the Supreme Court, COVID, the economy, race and violence in U.S. cities and the integrity of the election. “They’re going to be plowing old ground again,” he said.
“Trump’s got a legitimate complaint that these debates have not been skewed in his favor,” Khachigian said.
The candidates’ schedules ahead of the big day could not be more different.
Biden has not hit the campaign trail since Sunday, when he made a campaign stop in Durham, North Carolina.
Since Sunday, Air Force One has dropped Trump at airports in key states — Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — to deliver his signature stump speech at packed outdoor rallies.
Neither Wallace nor vice presidential debate moderator Susan Page has asked about Biden’s son, Hunter, who was paid some $50,000 per month to advise Ukrainian energy firm Burisma while his father served as the federal government’s point man for ridding Ukraine of corruption.
Trump brought up Hunter Biden during the first debate, accusing the younger Biden of pocketing money from foreign entities by trading on his father’s elected position. Biden denied Trump’s charges and spoke of Hunter Biden’s battle with addiction.
Last week, the New York Post ran a story about an alleged 2015 email from a Burisma adviser thanking Hunter Biden “for giving me the opportunity to meet with your father.”
The Biden campaign has questioned the story’s legitimacy and said that a search found no mention of the meeting in the former vice president’s official schedule. PolitiFact found the Post story did not establish a meeting occurred.
Leave family out of it
Khachigian said Trump shouldn’t mention Biden’s son but instead should stick to “more valuable areas” such as Biden’s “secret plan” to pack the Supreme Court. Biden has refused to say whether he would sign a bill to expand the court if he wins the presidency.
Said Moe Vela, a Biden friend and former adviser: “You really want to talk about Hunter Biden? You really want to talk about our children? Be careful what you ask for, buddy. Goose and gander.”
Vela predicted Biden would not mention Trump’s children despite criticism on the left about sons Don Jr. and Eric serving as campaign surrogates as they run the family business. “Even if Trump attacks his family, I suspect Joe Biden won’t go there,” Vela said.
“Who’s going to walk away better than when they came in?” Sherman asked. “They’re not debates in a classical sense.” Instead Sherman sees a “one-upping contest. It’s like the arena and the gladiators.”