It is one thing to tell the nine candidates in a primary debate not to interrupt each other and to stick to the time limits, as many moderators have done, and another thing to cut off a ranting man who listens to no one and simply won't stop, especially when that man is the president of the United States. Can you imagine what Donald Trump would be saying today if moderator Chris Wallace had successfully cut him off during the first presidential debate?
Wallace couldn't stop him, and maybe that's just as well. Debates are not supposed to be exercises in repeating quotes from stump speeches and briefing books. Debates that matter are ones that have moments that really show us who the candidates are. Most debates have none, frankly. They are mostly boring; both sides claim victory; and the polls don't move.
This debate had 93 such moments. It may not have told you much about Democratic nominee Joe Biden, except that he maintained his position as an adult, even through calling the president a "clown," but it said almost everything you need to know about Trump. I have always believed that presidential races ultimately turn on the voters' judgments about character, which is not as easy to test in polls as the economy and pandemics. The question I've always looked at first in polls is a variation of "Does he care about people like me?" and then "Can you trust him?"
For those who have watched Trump for years in horror, there was absolutely nothing new. My friends ask how anyone could vote for Trump after last night. There was nothing new for them either. Many of them are glad that he ran over Chris Wallace and the rules. The headlines of the leading newspapers on Wednesday are blaming Trump for chaos; by the time you read this, Trump and his campaign and media mouthpieces will be blaming the liberal news for any bad reviews.
The New York Times can and should chastise Trump with the truth every day between now and the most important election in my life, and I have no doubt it will. That's easy, just as easy as commenting on the moderator's failure to cut off everybody on the post-game shows.
But I am quite positive that very few people criticizing Chris Wallace have participated in a presidential debate, and none of them has ever told a president of the United States, or even a presidential nominee, to shut up. A polite word that time is up has always been enough, until now. Anyone who knows about this process had to be blindsided by the president's decision to turn the debate into a televised tantrum.
Every single thing about these debates is negotiated between the candidate, under the aegis of the Commission on Presidential Debates that was set up by both parties to ensure, frankly, that candidates (generally front-runners) wouldn't duck debates. The idea, a bipartisan idea, was that people deserved to see the candidates for president debate. There are rules. They get followed. Candidates are unfailingly polite to the moderator.
Chris Wallace was chosen for this moderating job because he is one of the most experienced journalists working today, a man who has always been as tough on one side, one candidate, as he is on his or her opponent. We were colleagues at Fox News, both hired by Roger Ailes. I've seen him off in the corner of Fox News trailers across America, far away from Sean Hannity and the rest of the nighttime talkers, working long hours to understand each candidate's proposals. That's why his recent interview with Donald Trump was the only one in recent history that fact-checked the president in real time. If you listened to the questions last night, it was clear that this could have been Chris Wallace at his best: He had done his research and formulated specific and tough questions for both candidates. But how could you listen?
When the president of the United States takes over the floor and decides to ignore the rules and rant about whatever he chooses, you can't expect the moderator to stop him. The only way to stop him is to vote.
Susan Estrich can be reached at email@example.com.