Planet debate: Clinton is from Mars, Trump from Venus
But who will seem the most alien in Monday showdown?
We, the citizenry of an open democracy, try to treat presidential debates as moments of civic virtue, political education and rare, unfiltered opportunities to see the candidates under duress.
Political scientists and news anchors assure skeptics in TV land that the debates are somehow more illuminating and noble than the sum of all the gotcha questions, canned answers, oily evasions and cunning put-downs.
We feel obliged to try and suppress our natural cynicism and exasperation toward these stage-managed, awkward faux debates. At least some of us do.
For all their B.S., debates are not bad or toxic things, like “Real Housewives”, anything Kardashian or internet porn.
But I am worried about this year’s debates because of how extreme and unpredictable Donald Trump is. The stakes are perhaps higher than ever; the potential for debacle also is high.
Trump is a person from a strain of homo sapiens that has never produced a presidential candidate from a major party. The whole world, including his groupies, knows perfectly well that candidate Trump does not obey or vaguely respect the traditional protocols of American politics, conventional manners, the Ninth Commandment or the Golden Rule. He demonstrates this daily in words, actions and tweets.
When Hillary Clinton enters the ring, she will play by the rules and try to win a debate about policies and beliefs. For Trump it’s a no-holds-barred brawl, a spectacle, a Friar’s Club Roast — the greatest reality television ever. There’s no doubt he is the star. No super-ego or conscience will constrain Trump, certainly no capacity for shame or embarrassment.
Clinton’s debate is on Mars; Trump’s is Venus. We poor and lowly voters are trying to stay sane on Earth.
For those reasons and more, I put the odds that Clinton can defend herself, express her core values in plain, human language, maintain a modicum of dignity and charm at roughly 1,000 to 1.
Clinton’s team believes (hopes?) that Trump will make an utter fool of himself.
The fatal flaw of that strategy is that Trump makes a fool of himself all the time. Voters are used to it, expect it and are usually amused by it. It’s what his boosters like most. He has nowhere to sink short of a public psychotic break. For all the silly talk of Trump becoming more “presidential,” no one believes that could be anything but a stunt.
With that preface, here are some idiosyncratic suggestions for the candidates and moderators to ignore:
First, Clinton should immediately issue a statement that she will not debate Trump under any conditions — period. She would be nuts to get into the ring with this troll, this attention-addicted political juvenile delinquent. Would a professional boxer agree to a bout with a prison champion who happens to use brass knuckles, shivs and bites? It’s asymmetrical warfare.
Clinton will debate Trump, of course. Her team thinks a refusal would be fatal, an admission of weakness.
I think a belligerent refusal would be a great way for her to finally do something daring, surprising, emotional and human. It might shuffle the deck. It would deny Trump his best chance to land a knockout sucker punch.
In NBC News’ weird commander-in-chief forum that Matt Lauer bungled so badly, Trump was uninformed, often wrong, frequently lying and generally vague. Yet he came off far better than Clinton, who gave her usual overly specific, scholastic performance. Trump used the language of normal people in a bar; Clinton talked like a senator at a think tank retreat.
If the Clinton-Trump debates took place in 1960, she would dominate. In 2016, she could be eviscerated for all the wrong reasons. Life’s not fair.
Secondly, these debates need two moderators. It’s too much for one person. The Commission on Presidential Debates should make that change pronto.
Even without a gonzo like Trump, moderating a presidential debate solo or tag team is very difficult. Asking a good question is the easy part. The hard part is juggling between keeping track of the timer, asking a follow-up question, monitoring the debaters and audience for bad behavior and having the next question ready.
Follow-up questions to Trump are unusually important because his answers on policy questions are usually variations of two themes — “it’s a disaster” or “it’s going to be great.” Follow-up questions are the only way to try to get some specifics or test his actual knowledge.
Thirdly, let’s drop the standard questions in presidential debates, which usually take two forms: “You now say X, but earlier you said Y. Explain.” Or, “You propose A, but experts say A won’t work. Respond.” Such questions are nearly irrelevant to Trump. He blows them off. No one expects him to display any policy depth or consistency.
It would be better to ask him plain factual questions: Explain what the nuclear triad is? Name the eight justices now on the U.S. Supreme Court and the pending nominee. Or name five of the amendments in the Bill of Rights.
Next, the commission and moderators need to have a game plan for how to deal with Trump’s name-calling and smears. If he refers to Clinton as Crooked Hillary, should the moderators intervene or leave it to Clinton to respond? What if Trump starts in on Bill Clinton’s love life or says that Vince Foster was murdered? Maybe they should give the recipient of official fouls extra time to speak.
Finally, get rid of the opening and closing statements. They’re unnecessary wastes of time. There is no shortage of opportunities to hear the candidates make speeches and there are few opportunities to observe the candidates responding to intelligent and sustaining questioning.
And may the best alien win.