Presidential primaries and party nominating conventions are behind us. Even in this most unusual and tumultuous election, the next event remains, as it has for 40 years, the Presidential Debates. The first debate occurs in a week on Monday, September 26 at 9 PM. The announced debate format shows some promise of delivering a real debate.
Up until now, the Presidential Debates have not been debates at all. A debate ordinarily focuses on a specific issue or group of issues and the participants argue their opposing points of view in detail. Debates used to be frequent occurrences in the United States Congress. Their unfortunate disappearance from our national discourse in favor of canned partisan sound bites is a painful subject for another time.
The quintessential political debates, always cited as the model, were the Lincoln-Douglas debates during a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 1858. Although senators were then elected by the state legislature, both the Democratic incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln attempted to marshal public opinion to affect the legislative vote. In debates in each of the nine Illinois congressional districts the two men debated the issue of slavery and how the nation would deal with it, particularly in newly created states.
The two men addressed those issues at length, obliged by the large crowds who attended and listened, to address telling points raised by their opponent. One candidate would speak for 60 minutes; the other for 90 minutes and then the first would get a “rejoinder” of 30 minutes. At alternate debates they would reverse the speaking order. There was no chance to deliver a 90 second sound bite and elude analysis by skipping off to an unrelated subject.
Starting with the original Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 the debates have been more of a joint press conference with only shallow discussion of issues and a premium being placed upon glibness. The 1960 debate is remembered for the disparity in the perception between those who watched on television and those who listened over the radio.
Apart from the archaic references to Quemoy and Matsu, my favorite from those debates was the question about some profane comments by former President Truman. Vice President Nixon, whose oval office recordings put the phrase “expletive deleted” into the language, answered that President Eisenhower’s speech was a model of decorum which all Presidents should follow. Ike, in private of course, had the vocabulary one would expect of a career soldier and golfer. Senator Kennedy wryly suggested that he would defer on the subject to Mrs. Truman.
In 1964 there was still no precedent for a sitting President debating and LBJ had no interest in setting one. Nixon, once burned, avoided debates in 1968 and 1972. Gerald Ford in 1976, although President, had never been in a national election and faced Jimmy Carter, the ultimate outsider (at least up until this year) who also had a large lead in the polls. Ford debated Carter, establishing the practice followed ever since.
Ford also inspired the prime debate directive: “Avoid the gaffe.” Although he meant it only in a relative sense, his statement that Poland was not under the control of the Soviet Union is generally believed to have contributed to his defeat.
Cautious gaffe-avoidance as the predominant strategy in the debates since then has kept the excitement to a minimum. What passes for drama in the debates has been Al Gore’s loud sighing, Bush ’41 looking at his watch and Reagan’s comments “There you go again” to a Carter attack and his puckish reply to a question about his advanced age that he would not take advantage of his opponent’s “youth and inexperience.”
The prospect of a real debate breaking out next week lies in the new rules provided by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The 90 minute debate is to be broken into six 15 minute segments on a single subject matter. The moderator will ask a question on the topic and each candidate will have two minutes to answer. The candidates, guided by the moderator, will continue discussing the subject for the remainder of the 15 minutes.
Still a long way short of a Lincoln-Douglas debate, the rules seem designed to assess the candidates’ ability to discuss a subject in depth. Particularly, they will test whether Republican nominee Donald Trump has the depth of knowledge and attention span to talk about the same subject coherently for 15 minutes. We will find out if he has the discipline to focus on a briefing and deliver the results.
Certainly Trump is very experienced in working without a script. His debate performance in the primaries is not encouraging. Even with the assistance of a stage full of opponents attacking each other, his “gaffe content” has been high. Not until the nation became focused on the campaign after the conventions though, has Trump been held to account for verbal blunders by a drop in the polls.
Intelligent, well-read, well-advised and certainly experienced, Hillary Clinton should have a big advantage in a format that rewards extensive knowledge. She faces two problems. The first is on subjects dealing with her credibility, only some of them arising from the recent release of masses of her emails. On the campaign trail when she takes questions, she has gotten away with denying any false statements or saying “I have admitted mistakes.” That will be hard to keep up on a particular point for 15 minutes, if the moderator or, less likely, Trump has the discipline to press for answers.
The second danger for Secretary Clinton is that Trump will simply ignore the debate rules and conduct himself as he did in the Republican Primary debates. Indeed, I have suggested elsewhere that she should have simply refused to debate him, arguing that his performance in the Republican debates, replete with personal ad hominem attacks, makes it plain he is not capable of participating in a proper debate.
The chance to take that action was there but it has passed. Moreover she then had a large lead over him in the polls which seems to have evaporated.
Deep, thorough, knowledge of the issues will be no defense to Trump’s uncontrolled, even reckless, debate style. Ask Jeb Bush and John Kasich.
Unless Trump is as smart as he says and has accepted a lot of briefing, his ignorance will be laid bare in the current debate format. If he abandons his new “presidential” style and reverts to form, the format should make his lack of focus and knowledge apparent.
The questions then will be “Can the moderator keep some semblance of order?” and whether Mrs. Clinton can function in the chaos.
Trump has already been “working the refs,” arguing that there should be no debate moderators at all and that the network newsmen selected are biased against him. He can try to keep them off-balance trying to appear “fair” to him. Failing that, if he follows his usual practice, he will claim the debates are “rigged.”