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High school debates function way better than what America saw Tuesday night

As someone who regularly uses clips from presidential debates in class to engage students, I can tell you that the behavior on that debate stage Tuesday night was unlike any I have seen in modern presidential campaigning (save for the 2016 presidential election). It was also unlike anything I have witnessed at high school and college debates and mock trial competitions. 

If you were ever a participant on a debate team, chances are that you also cringed after only five minutes of the first presidential debate. 

The structure of the debate was no different than presidential debates from years past. Each candidate would address a question put forth by the moderator for two minutes, one after the other, with additional follow-up time. While this quicker structure is different from what debate teams face across the country, the style is very similar. 

The general rules of debate are that participants alternate in who is asked each question, and then respond to the points made by their opponent and offer their own arguments during their allotted time. There’s a level of decorum: You wait your turn, and you remain civil. But that’s not how the debate on Tuesday night progressed at all. The debate rules did not seem to matter, especially to President Donald Trump. 

Before the 2016 election, it was typical to see candidates take the stage, greet each other, and be mostly respectful of the time constraints given to them. If we look at the most memorable moments in presidential debate history, they are usually when a candidate is given a chance to respond to points made by their opponents. Candidates typically jot down notes when their opponent discusses ideas and plans, and then when given a chance to respond, address points that were raised by their opponent and explain their own agenda. 

To be fair, I went into the debate Tuesday expecting a few zingers and interruptions, especially from Trump given his debate performances in the past. While it is easy to forget, in the first presidential debate of 2016, Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton a record-setting 51 times. On that debate night, I remember being stunned at the way that debate was handled by both the candidates and the moderator. “Why can’t we mute his mic?” students asked me.

Even with this background heading into Tuesday, I did not expect the sheer number of times Trump would interrupt both former Vice President Joe Biden and Fox News anchor and debate moderator Chris Wallace. While estimates vary, it looks as though the candidates interrupted each other or Wallace at least 90 times in 90 minutes, with Trump leading the way with 71 interruptions (other estimates show Trump interrupting approximately 128 times). 

What I want to be clear about is that this behavior is not normal. This is not normal for high school or college debate competitions; this is not normal for our presidential debates. In a high school debate or mock trial competition, students would be thrown out and disqualified for the behavior Trump displayed. 

No other presidential candidate has ever not allowed another candidate to answer their questions. The last presidential debate without Trump as a candidate (2012) involved very few interruptions and two candidates who were cordial to one another on the stage, which is how it had always been (until now). President Barack Obama interrupted Sen. Mitt Romney only seven times, and Romney only interrupted Obama four. 

Given the sheer number of interruptions, it should come as no surprise that people from both sides of the aisle are now clamoring for there to be stricter rules for the next two debates. On Wednesday, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it will soon adopt changes that will hopefully make what we witnessed Tuesday night a one-time affair, including possibly allowing the moderator to mute the mics of the participants when their opponents are talking. 

At one time, journalists actually wanted to be a moderator for a presidential debate. Trump changed all of that. No one Tuesday night wanted to be in Wallace’s shoes. I think I speak for all of us when I say we really don’t want to sit through another debate like that again. 

Let’s please bring back civility to our political discourse and hold our presidential candidates to the same level of professionalism that has been expected in years past. 

Heather K. Evans is the John Morton Beaty professor of political science at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

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