The Hilarious Debate Rules Protecting the Candidates from Real People

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 15 2012 3:45 PM

The Hilarious Debate Rules Protecting the Candidates from Real People

Mark Halperin snags the memorandum of understanding that governs the presidential debates, and the humor comes when we learn how the campaigns governed the town hall format. "In managing the two-minute comment periods," write the rulemakers, "the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic." The questioners will not engage in dialogues with the candidates. "The audience members shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion, and the audience member's microphone shall be turned off after he or she completes asking the questions."

Pretty clear what the campaigns were trying to do here, isn't it? They were trying to forestall a "moment" for either candidate, like the Bill Clinton response to the confused woman who asked how "the national debt has affected you personally." Clinton won that exchange because Ross Perot and George W. Bush answered the question, while he walked towards the woman and kept following up, asking her how she'd been hurt.

It worked for the most charismatic national candidate of the last few generations. But boy, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is particularly adept at this kind of flim-flam. Neither is unpersonable, but neither one could risk bumbling into an awkward moment with a Real American, or watching helplessly as the other candidate actually scored. As gaffe-preventing wimpery goes, it should be pretty effective.

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There's also this: "The candidates shall not address each other with proposed pledges." That's not a bad rule!

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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