Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
There are going to be presidential debates this fall. Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes a strong point, though, that President Donald Trump, who has lied, misled and made false claims more than 22,000 times, according to the Washington Post, has not earned the right to stand on the stage with Joe Biden because he can’t tell the truth. Regardless, there will be debates.
The real question is: What kind of debates will there be? Will we have an honest conversation where both candidates are given the chance to present their vision for the future, or will this debate devolve into a series of lies from the President that former Vice President Joe Biden is forced to react to?
Debate rules are determined by negotiations between the two campaigns mediated by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Although not perfect, the commission has done a very good job of structuring the debates in the past so that both campaigns get what they need and, more importantly, the American public gets to make an informed judgment on who they will vote for.
President Trump poses an unprecedented challenge to both the commission and the Biden campaign. He routinely lies about what he has done, what he has said and what is actually happening in the country. He famously said to Americans that they should not trust what they see and read; they should only trust him. Putting the Animal Farm illusions aside, it revealed an essential element of Trump’s strategy: He believes he can create a version of history that brings credit only to him and blame to everyone else, and that he can sell this alternative strategy to the American people. That worked in 2016 – it may work again in 2020.
So, how do we have debates that are a service and not a circus for the American public? I think it’s important the debate commission recognizes the challenge of the moment – one of the debaters seems incapable of sticking to the truth. They must structure the format to take that into account, to allow for the moderator to call out lies no matter who they come from.
The television networks also have an important role to play here. Just broadcasting what gets said in real time creates a perverse incentive to not tell the truth during the debate. Correcting things with fact checkers after most people have turned off their televisions fails to meet their responsibilities to keep the public informed.
They must develop a system for identifying false statements in real time. Whether that be the moderator or a split screen, letting a lie (or lies) pass unchecked for 90 minutes encourages both candidates to create their own reality. That only leaves the character of the candidate to police themselves – creating a huge disadvantage for a candidate whose character compels them to tell the truth. Just as importantly, the viewers they broadcast too are ill-served by a debate that resembles a toddler’s argument.
Finally, it’s incumbent on the Biden campaign to use their leverage to make sure the debate is both fair and valuable. It’s not in Biden’s interest to be put in the position of repeatedly needing to correct the President’s misstatements. If he does that, he’ll have no time to make his own case. And if his case is based on the false pretext created by a dishonest President, it’s hard to see how he can effectively make his case.
Critics of this thinking will argue the American people will know the difference between the truth and a lie. That is dangerously naïve. Many Americans don’t know the difference because they are fed a steady diet of partisan propaganda. It’s nearly impossible for anyone in this digital social media age to know what is true and what is not.
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That brings us back to the commission, the networks and the Biden campaign and their ability to make these debates fair and useful. I believe they must insist on mechanisms in advance to correct demonstrably false statements as they happen. It will make for a better debate, and importantly, a more informed electorate. It will also remove the perverse incentive that currently exists to replace facts with fictions. The only way to get a liar to stop lying is to call them out on the spot. This can and must be done if these debates are to have any value.