NEW YORK – Nearly two months later, Chris Wallace can't bring himself to watch a rerun of the disastrous first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
“I'm not sure I ever will,” said Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host who moderated the slugfest.
George Washington University brought leaders of the Commission on Presidential Debates and moderators of all three encounters together for a remote debrief Monday night. Two takeaways: increased early voting means the commission is considering earlier debates, and the mute button may be here to stay.
It was a boisterous, uncomfortable fall for the debate commission, which dropped the second of three planned presidential sessions when Trump refused to agree to a remote debate following his COVID diagnosis. Trump and supporters also attacked the bipartisan commission as being biased toward Biden.
“No one likes to be on the receiving end of attacks in reference to us being swamp monsters,” said Kenneth Wollack, one of the commission's co-chairs. He said there's “not an ounce of partisanship” that goes into the commission's decisions.
One decision, the subject of much internal debate, was to mute the microphones of Trump and Biden when their opponent was giving a two-minute answer at the introduction of a new subject matter.
The commission said it wasn't a new rule, but a means to enforce rules that had already been agreed upon. Trump's repeated interruptions during the Sept. 29 debate, an apparent strategy to knock Biden off stride, forced the change.
NBC's Kristen Welker, the moderator who benefited from the mute button, said she was “pleasantly pleased” with how it worked; the commission will formally evaluate its future next spring, said Frank Fahrenkopf, another co-chair.
If he has any regrets, Wallace said he wished he would have acted sooner to suggest a “time out” so the candidates might be convinced to better behave themselves.
“I realized after 15 minutes that I had a problem and the country had a problem,” he said.
But Wallace said it was a “very bad strategy” on the president's part because it quickly became clear that Trump was hurting himself more than Biden. Fahrenkopf said he believed Trump's performance that night was a key factor in his election loss.
“For better or worse, I think the first debate was a deeply clarifying moment,” Wallace said.
USA Today's Susan Page, who moderated the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris, was bedeviled by the candidates' long-windedness and elusiveness, preventing her from following up questions unanswered. If she had a do-over, she said she would have been more aggressive in cutting Pence off.
The moderators shared preparation strategies. Welker, who drew praise for her handling of the final debate, left her beat at NBC News to concentrate on getting ready. She said she called people across the country, like undecided voters and teachers working remotely due to COVID.
“It gave me a sense and sensibility of what voters cared about,” she said. “I really wanted it to not be a Washington debate.”
Fahrenkopf said it's getting more difficult to choose moderators because the commission wants to make sure there's nothing in their work to make them appear to favor one candidate over the other. With more voters retreating to media outlets that reflect their points of view, debates offer an increasingly rare chance to see different viewpoints side-by-side.
If he had one piece of advice to viewers, Fahrenkopf said it would be to turn off their televisions after the debate's conclusion and not listen to TV analysts telling them what they just saw.
“I think that's very bad advice,” replied Wallace, who fills that role when he's not moderating.