Cancel the Rest of the Debates?

More of what we saw last night would be bad for the country.

That President Trump steamrolled his way through last night’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad debate, making a laughingstock of the agreed-upon rules is not in dispute. Nor is the fact that moderator Chris Wallace failed miserably to rein him in. But it’s not obvious that he could have.

WaPo’s Aaron Blake:

A few weeks ago, Wallace delivered one of the toughest interviews of Trump to date — a rare instance in which Trump was repeatedly fact-checked on his falsehoods and didn’t seem to know what to do.

Wallace was in some ways set up to fail on Tuesday night. He wasn’t supposed to fact-check the candidates as he did Trump a few weeks ago. And it wasn’t clear that any moderator would have been able to handle what was thrown at him. But it just wasn’t a good debate.

Wallace allowed himself to be something of a wallflower early on, as Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and Biden sometimes interrupted Trump — before either of them could convey a cogent thought.

But most striking was Wallace’s attempts to almost placate Trump.

“Mr. President, you’re going to be very happy, because we’re going to talk about law and order,” Wallace said at one point while trying to move past Trump talking over Biden.

“Let me ask — sir, you’ll be happy, I’m about to pick up on one of your points to ask the vice president,” Wallace said at another point.AD

At other points, though, Wallace noted that Trump was clearly the chief offender.

“And by the way, Mr. President, your campaign agreed that both sides would get two-minute answers uninterrupted,” Wallace noted later in the debate.

Again, it was an impossible situation, but it will hardly go down as a great presidential debate.

I have long thought that moderators should be able to turn off the microphones of offenders. Blake’s colleague Margaret Sullivan agrees but goes much further:

It’s hard to know what Wallace could have done once the trouble began, which hardly took a moment, to fix the unfolding disaster.

Wallace needed to do something far more powerful than politely urge the president to follow the rules and stop interrupting Joe Biden. “Please let him speak,” he said repeatedly, as if shouting directions to a gale-force hurricane. “I’m the moderator of this debate, and I would like you to let me ask my question,” he tried at one point.

But to no avail.

Wallace needed, at the very least, a mute button. Maybe something stronger. A penalty box? A stun gun?

Failing some radical reform in the debate format, there’s no reason for the next two debates to take place as scheduled on Oct. 15 and 22.

The debate commission should seriously consider allowing the vice-presidential debate to take place next Wednesday and calling off the other two presidential debates.

[…]

The debate can only be called a failure.

The idea that two more like it are in the near future is simply unacceptable. The idea that either of the two coming moderators — Steve Scully of C-Span and Kristen Welker of NBC News — can hope to control things any better is a dubious one unless the format changes substantially.

I’m honestly not sure what format change could possibly stop someone who simply doesn’t care about propriety and discourse. Again, some sort of muting function might help but it would only go so far.

Given that, even under the best of circumstances, a series of short answers to questions from moderators isn’t really a “debate,” it might be best just to do away with the pretense altogether. Now that we’re down to two candidates, we might be better off with one-on-ones instead.

As a significant frontrunner, there’s not much upside for Biden in participating in a sham process. So, canceling the debates would likely redound in his favor.

But, of course, doing so would only give Trump yet another avenue for claiming the whole thing is “Rigged!” and “Unfair!” The Proud Boys are standing by.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    I have long thought that moderators should be able to turn off the microphones of offenders.

    I am struggling to think of a debate since at least 2008 since this hasn’t been an idea that has been proposed (often in real time since the advent of Twitter).

    I fully expect this pattern to continue for the rest of my adult life and no changes will be made.

    The Proud Boys are standing by.

    James, given your (small c) conservative/traditonalist leanings, you tend to be my “canary in a coal mine” (rather than Benjamin Wittes) on certain things. The fact you decided to close with that (even as a dark joke) is not filling me with any good feelings.

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  2. Yes, cancel the remaining debates. You cannot debate a thug.

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  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    But most striking was Wallace’s attempts to almost placate Trump.

    A few weeks ago, someone was asking why I was willing to lump Chris Wallace together with hacks like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. This is why, and I think it shows how working for an organization like Fox News erodes the soul.

    As to the debates, not my circus, not my clown car. The League of Women Voters or whoever is the primary sponsor these days can do what’s best for business. It’s the American Way.

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  4. Jen says:

    The next debate “format” is a town hall.

    It’d be rather telling if the President shouted down individual voters asking questions.

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  5. Paine says:

    Yes, cancel the remaining two presidential debates. Last night was a disgrace.

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  6. Eric Dunnicliff says:

    As Biden voter, please keep the debates going. “Trump fatigue” is going to sent in more and more. Last night was a big reminder how much Trump makes a mockery of our institutional norms.

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  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Why do you guys hate Joe Biden so much? Biden’s campaign cleared $3.8 million in one hour last night. Just think how much more he can raise over the next 2.

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  8. If I were Biden I would refuse to participate until the rules are changed to address the mis-behaving child.

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  9. ptfe says:

    Cancelling the other debates is exactly what Trump wants out of this. He has no policies to discuss, the debates don’t include his adoring crowds, and he knows he’s going to gain zero ground in them. They only damage his current favorite narrative that Biden is a clueless, demented old man who can’t appear in public unless he’s hopped up on Brain Juice.

    Biden should look forward to these. He doesn’t have to “win” them in any meaningful sense. The guy’s not a firebrand, he’s not going to wow voters by bulldozing Trump in a Battle of Wits and Shouting. He just needs to do exactly what he did last night – say his message to the camera, have reasonable command of actual facts, briefly outline his policies, and occasionally MST3K his opponent – and let the president dig his own electoral grave.

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  10. Joe says:

    @Jen:
    In a town hall format, the audience might actually react badly even to one candidate talking over the other. “I asked Mr. Biden a question and I would like to hear his answer.” Hope springs eternal.

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  11. Kingdaddy says:

    If you can’t win a debate, destroy the institution of debates. That’s what you give Trump if further debates are canceled. We should not abandon an institution and a critical part of presidential elections because someone hasn’t yet figured out how to turn off a microphone.

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  12. @ptfe:
    The guy who’s behind needs the debates. Biden’s well out in front. Trump is the one who wants and needs debates, he’s just too stupid and malignant to know how to profit from them.

    Biden should demand major rule changes to include turning off Trump’s mike and camera as necessary. Trump will refuse. Point for Joe.

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  13. @Kingdaddy:
    Not abandoning, suspending. Four years from now I’m confident that Kamala Harris will debate whoever the GOP put up.

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  14. SKI says:

    @Jen:

    The next debate “format” is a town hall.

    It’d be rather telling if the President shouted down individual voters asking questions.

    This. Dynamics will be very different with the different format – or at least the impact of the buffoonish behavior will be even starker.

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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Josh has some thoughts:

    Having had a night to sleep on it – and sleep very soundly – I’m much closer to what I said was the downside possibility for the President: not just a missed opportunity but a self-immolation. This was truly the worst of Trump: racist, belligerent, angry, unstable. I’ll give the man his due. Trump can be if not funny then jocular, entertaining in a predatory, roguish way. Last night had none of that. It was pure id and an id under threat.

    Beyond all the individual offenses one of the underrated sub-themes of anti-Trumpism is exhaustion. One of the deepest traumas of living in the home of an abuser stems not from the outbursts of physical violence, verbal abuse or manipulation but the accumulated stress of ambient tension, uncertainty, the reflexive, unshakeable hyper-vigilance. It is exhausting in a profound way. Trump is exhausting – I suspect even for some who share his dark values. This was 90 minutes jam-packed with everything that makes Trump exhausting. Living with an abuser means being trapped in close quarters with the abuse, being unable to run. In a month voters get the chance to walk away.

    There’s been some chatter about the final two debates being canceled. I can’t imagine that’s going to happen or in whose interest it would be to make it happen. Neither campaign has any interest in doing that. The organizers have no interest in it. That’s not going to happen. But the President has put himself in a box…….

    If you are feeling exhausted, as I am, skip it. There is no civic duty to subject oneself to such abuse.

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  16. Steven L. Taylor says:

    @ptfe:

    Cancelling the other debates is exactly what Trump wants out of this.

    This is my thought as well.

    Still: what a mess. I stopped watching at just over the half-hour mark to resume my binge of DS9.

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  17. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    A few weeks ago, someone was asking why I was willing to lump Chris Wallace together with hacks like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. This is why, and I think it shows how working for an organization like Fox News erodes the soul.

    Honestly, I think the recent one-on-one interview is a far better representation of who Wallace is as a journalist. I haven’t watched Fox (or any of the news channels) with any regularity in a long time now but his reputation is as a serious journalist. I think what he was doing there was treating Trump like a toddler to get him to calm down and cooperate. It didn’t work but I’m not sure what would have worked.

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  18. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    It didn’t work but I’m not sure what would have worked.

    A Taser?

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  19. CSK says:

    I agree with those who don’t think the debates should be canceled. They showcase Trump’s utter degeneracy, and turn a spotlight on it.

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  20. Hmm, you could have the debates, but not have them live. Moderator asks a question, get two minute responses off the cuff from each, edit them together. Then show the responses, and allow a one-minute rebuttal to each. You don’t get any interplay, but that’s what happens when one party won’t shut up.

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  21. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Put a shock collar on Trump and give the moderator the button.

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  22. Michael Cain says:

    What I was reminded of was 40 years of technical and business working meetings where there’s that one asshole who knows little but still insists on talking over everybody. They are unfortunately common, and I suspect they saw Trump’s behavior as quite reasonable: strong, forceful leadership. Years back, when I was doing research on using internet computer networks for real-time multi-party multi-media communications, my experimental control protocols always included a way for a leader/moderator to shut such people’s audio off. Wallace really needed one, and prior agreement from both sides that he could use it.

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  23. Blue Galangal says:

    It would benefit Trump and Trump alone to cancel the next debates. I am still shocked he showed up/was allowed to show up – he’s not functional and he continues to unwind. I think the stunned reaction of the inside the beltway crowd shows how much of a Trump bubble THEY have been living in – this is who he is, this is who he’s ALWAYS been, but ooh when he’s mean and rude to two old white men, oh my GOD the SKY is FALLING.

    This is the guy who derided John McCain, was rude to a Gold Star family, mocked a disabled reporter and suddenly just now they’ve noticed that he’s a nasty bully?

    The funny part is his campaign is painting him into a corner to continue to participate – witness Kayleigh’s “we’re not afraid, they’re afraid” response. Please, Trump, please don’t throw us into that briar patch.

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  24. Blue Galangal says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The thing is, his campaign AGREED to the rules. I’m not sure why any rules should even be set because clearly he didn’t even get to the third bullet point on his little debate prep card.

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  25. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: If you lot cancel the debates, Trump gains a rhetorical point – they are afraid of me – and you’ve changed nothing, nothing at all.

    Let him be beastly in front of a large audience, beyond his White Supremacist neo-fascist reaction base.

    Remove any excuse.

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  26. KM says:

    @Michael Cain:

    prior agreement from both sides that he could use it.

    I must disagree on this: no agreement should be necessary because it should be understood as a matter of course. Agreement on *how* and *when* cutoff should occur – absolutely, as well as something that indicates to the speakers and audience it has occurred for fair’s sake. However, the concept that the moderator should be allowed to, you know, moderate and enforce the rules is *not* something that should be up for debate.

    Trump will not – in fact, CANNOT – shut his damn mouth. It’s part of his pathology to speak over people and insist on having the last word. You do not negotiate or expect consensus on the basic structure of a thing with someone who cannot do either. Moderated debates are MODERATED and if he can’t understand that, cut his mike and watch him rage. Show the world what a brat he is and make them accept that yeah, this is your choice. You own this if you vote for him.

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  27. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Blue Galangal:
    Did you actually watch the debate? Because that remark is nowhere near reality.

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Biden is perfectly capable of face-planting. When you’re leading you don’t take risks that have no upside.

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  28. Fortunato says:

    Cancelling the debates hands Trump the win.
    These debates are televised – simply used the most rudimentary tools television allows. Put the debate on a 15 minute delay and allow Steve Scully of C-Span and Kristen Welker of NBC News to use that very same Crying Baby gif as a fool proof defense against Trump’s tirades.
    When Trump goes into a mendacious, blabbering tirade, Scully and Welker can simply push a button on their desk that would superimpose the Crying Baby gif on the screens of viewers at home.
    Trump’s malevolence would be nullified yet viewers would still get to hear Biden’s honest, thoughtful ideas and proposals.
    And.. our nation would be spared Trump/Barr’s calculated, overt attacks on the processes that undergird our democracy as well as mute his fomentation of violence among his White Supremacist, domestic terrorist base.

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  29. charon says:

    Cancelling the other debates is exactly what Trump wants out of this. He has no policies to discuss, the debates don’t include his adoring crowds, and he knows he’s going to gain zero ground in them.

    This, exactly. Trump is at Morton’s Fork.

    One path is keep doing what he did last night, flood the zone with sht, talk over Biden. Downside is that hurts him.

    The other path is behave himself and defend his record. Downsides: his record is indefensible, plus it is not in his nature to not follow path 1, and he is too inflexible to not follow his nature (example: whiffing the Proud Boys softball).

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  30. KM says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Oh hell no. You trust them to edit it in a way to make Trump look less crazy? How about making Biden look bad with some selective edits?

    Live is live for a reason and we saw it last night. Trump can’t control himself and giving them a chance to mitigate even a part of his BS is a huge win for him. Too many people have only seen him in sound bites and clips that make him look “better”. Last night was full frontal Trump for a lot of people and that’s why it’s news today.

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  31. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Lounsbury:
    Trump has his 42%. He’ll keep them. Biden has his 50%. He’ll keep them. There’s arguably 8% up for grabs, but of course that’s b.s. Late deciders tend to go for the challenger, but let’s split them evenly, just for fun. Trump is back at his 2016 starting point of 46%, but Biden comes in at 54%, an 8 point gap that no EC can overcome.

    In theory a town hall debate would be an easy lay-up for Biden because he’s, you know, not a psychopath. But I don’t trust some Bernie fan in the audience not to attack Biden from the Left and end up depressing Democratic turnout. The Trumpies aren’t the problem for Democrats, the progressives may be.

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  32. wr says:

    The third debate is going to be moderated by Kristen Welker. Given Trump’s loathing of women and desperate hatred of women who dare to question him, I suspect it will be a shitshow that will make last night look like Mr. Lincoln meeting Mr. Douglas. Biden is far too smart to drop out of that.

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  33. Teve says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: my DS9 binge is halfway through Season 3. 😀

    Love this show. Except for that Bajoran monk guy. He’s tedious.

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  34. Mister Bluster says:

    @wr:..I suspect it will be a shitshow that will make last night look like Mr. Lincoln meeting Mr. Douglas.

    Statues of slave owners removed from Capitol grounds
    Illinois has made good on a promise to remove statues from the Capitol grounds of people associated with slavery.
    Statues of Stephen Douglas and Pierre Menard were removed Saturday morning and taken to a secure storage area. On Monday, workers were removing the bases that the statues rested on. Once they are gone, the locations will be seeded with grass.
    The State Journal-Register

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  35. gVOR08 says:

    Rachel Maddow suggested by tweet last night that we should switch to debate-by-mail.

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  36. BugManDan says:

    Why not just put these things on a Zoom call that is live broadcast. The moderator can silence people. If it is a townhall, the citizen can be added to the screen.

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  37. Pylon says:

    I am sure a townhall benefits Biden because of his ability to be empathetic and speak personally. On the other hand, I don’t think that format prevents Trump from interrupting like he did, since once the quezon is asked, the operator then plays the same role as Wallace. At best Trump won’t attack the questioner like he sometimes did with Wallace.

    One thing the moderators should do, however, is allow a follow up from the citizen and also ask “did that answer your question”.

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  38. Pylon says:

    @KM: “Last night was full frontal Trump”.

    Please don’t.

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  39. Bob@Youngstown says:

    FWIW, here is my suggestion for future debates:
    One podium with one microphone, candidates are seated (min 6 feet apart), stand a speak from the podium for their allotted time. At 15 seconds beyond their allotted time, the mike goes dead.

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  40. HelloWorld! says:

    Cancel? Why not just change the format. Wait, me thinks the networks and media like it to be dysfunctional and uninformative.

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  41. Further debates (if any) should only proceed with appropriate moderation:

    https://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m7ah1iABDS1r7922zo1_500.gif

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  42. gVOR08 says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    Wait, me thinks the networks and media like it to be dysfunctional and uninformative.

    Yeah. I expect we’ll see a big audience for the next debate. People watch NASCAR for the wrecks.

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  43. CSK says:

    The Commission on Presidential Debates says that changes to the debate format will be forthcoming, but it hasn’t said what those changes will be.

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  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @KM: Except that for the people who support him, it’s a feature not a defect. I don’t care debate, don’t debate. There’s nothing more to know. Never was either.

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  45. Jen says:

    @CSK: Norah O’Donnell/CBS News are reporting that cutting off a candidate’s microphone if he violates the rules is one of the changes.

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  46. Blue Galangal says:

    @Pylon:

    I am sure a townhall benefits Biden because of his ability to be empathetic and speak personally. On the other hand, I don’t think that format prevents Trump from interrupting like he did, since once the quezon is asked, the operator then plays the same role as Wallace. At best Trump won’t attack the questioner like he sometimes did with Wallace.

    Trump did not handle the questioners at the one-on-one town hall well. I wouldn’t rule out attacks on the questioners.

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  47. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @HelloWorld!: Although I wonder why the media would prefer that–and quaver at the possibility that you will explain further, causing me to rethink my position–you may be on to something.

    This time.

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  48. Blue Galangal says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    @Blue Galangal:
    Did you actually watch the debate? Because that remark is nowhere near reality.

    That Trump didn’t follow the rules that his campaign agreed to? I was under the impression, perhaps wrongly, that both sides had agreed to the two-minute response format, and that Trump was aware his campaign had agreed to that format. Including not to interrupt. But he didn’t follow the rules his campaign said he agreed to follow. In the 20 minutes I saw, Trump interrupted and talked over Biden about 5 times.

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  49. inhumans99 says:

    It would appear that the ratings for last night’s debate were at best what you might consider meh ratings, as they were nothing to write home about.

    That tells me that it is not just wishful thinking on the part of liberals that debates no longer matter as much as they used to….the numbers don’t lie, less people are indeed interested in watching two old white men spar on national television.

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  50. @Jen:

    Cutting the mics will likely prove insufficient. They are too close to each other so it will still be possible to disrupt the other guy. They should consider dog shock-collars…but ideally the shocks should be administered to a different place.

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  51. CSK says:

    @Jen:
    It’s a start. My concern would be that Trump would start screaming out his “remarks” if they did that. I can see him yelling about “censorship.”

    As an aside, Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s comms director for the campaign, says they’re only doing this because their favorite, Biden, got “pummeled.”

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  52. Jen says:

    @dazedandconfused: Oh, I agree. Woefully insufficient. I think they feel like they have to do *something*–having Dana Bash describe a presidential debate as a “shitshow” on CNN has to be a low point, but even they might realize that’s potentially not the nadir. Trump has a way of taking things even lower.

    @CSK: Yeah, that too.

    I still think the town hall format has the potential to modify behavior, at least somewhat.

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