Trump vs. Clinton, Round One

The modern political debate format and its disservice to voters.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.​

If the first presidential debate was a boxing match, Hillary dropped her guard and stuck out her chin at least half a dozen times, Donald threw wild haymakers that landed maybe once or twice, and the referee Lester Holt obviously had laid a six-figure bet on Hillary. Ali vs. Frazier it wasn’t.

Whether this debate makes a difference in the election is unknowable. Romney cleaned Obama’s clock during their first debate in 2012, but that mattered less than the leaked “47%” sound bite. Remember, in 2008, from September 5 to 17, McCain and Obama were virtually tied in the polls. After Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, McCain never again led in a poll, and Obama won by seven points. In every election, candidates are vulnerable to the sort of “event” that terrified British PM Harold Nicolson. Right now in 2016 the dice are still rolling.

More interesting to me is how this spectacle illustrates just how debased our political culture has become. First, what we call a “debate” is not a debate. Rather than two people directly confronting and challenging each other, we have a “moderator” choosing the questions and attempting to manage the answers. Holt’s obvious bias for Hillary illustrates the problem of having a moderator drawn from the media, which are clearly in one camp or another and choose questions and interventions consistent with their ideology. 

Thus Holt wasted time scourging Trump with the stale “birther” issue, his tax returns, his alleged misogyny, his bankruptcies, stop-and-frisk, and his support for the Iraq war. But nary a question for Hillary on the Clinton Foundation and the evidence for a conflict of interest during her tenure as Secretary of State, nary a one on her documented lies about her email server through which she passed classified information, nary a word on her responsibility for the debacle in Benghazi and the deaths of four Americans. And how about Hillary’s “basket of deplorables,” or her accusation that whites have an “implicit bias” against blacks, or her support for the Iraq war, or her public insult of General David Petraeus when in 2007 she said his true data on the success of the surge in Iraq “required a willing suspension of disbelief”? More telling, Holt asked Trump six follow-up questions, and Hillary not a single one. And he interrupted Trump more than he did Hillary.

The point, however, is not that we need a “good” moderator rather than a bad one. Nor do I think Holt’s bias is why Trump didn’t do as well as he could have. Trump had every opportunity to pound Hillary with the issues Holt ignored, or to brush off Holt’s “gotcha” fishing. The real point is why do we have a moderator at all? There was no moderator in 1858 during the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, the perennial epitome of good political debates. Each candidate decided on the issue to address, posed questions to his opponent, or made a claim about him. Each candidate then responded and “fact-checked” his opponent’s assertions, as Lincoln did in the first debate when he responded to Douglas’ charge that he had conspired to “abolitionize” the Democrat and Whig parties. It was up to the some ten-thousand spectators to adjudicate between which candidate was truthful or which made the better argument, not some “moderator” with a partisan axe to grind.

Next is the ridiculous “two minute” limit on responses to the moderator’s topic. This automatically reduces comments to superficial and vacuous campaign sound bites on issues chosen by the moderator and subject to his prejudices and preferences. Why else did Holt bring up Trump’s comment that Hillary “didn’t have a presidential look,” if not to give her an opening to attack Trump’s alleged “misogyny”? In 1858, one candidate spoke for an hour, the other for 90 minutes, then the first speaker was given an additional half an hour. No wonder that despite the candidates’ political spin, there was much more depth and specificity to the candidates’ comments than the superficial, trivial, irrelevant, petulant, and empty slogans both candidates for the most part indulge in during most modern debates. 

Of course, the format of our presidential debates, like the way campaigns are conducted, is designed to serve television and social media like Twitter. They are not aimed at a serious discussion of the candidates’ political philosophy. Thus the focus is on viewers’ and pundits’ perceptions of whether or not the candidates appear “presidential” or “knowledgeable” or able to be trusted with the nuclear codes. The demagogue Cleon scolded the Athenians for attending debates as they would the theater, in thrall to the “pleasure of the ear.” We are slaves to the pleasure of the eye, confusing contrived images with reality.

So it’s no surprise that both candidates are giving short-shrift to the major problems the country faces both at home and abroad, for they require more difficult and uncomfortable discussion of conflicting political philosophies. Little is being said about the looming fiscal disaster created by spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Affordable Care Act subsidies ––half the $3.7 trillion federal budget in 2015. Throw in the expense of servicing the federal debt, currently nearly $20 trillion. By 2035 all tax revenue will be consumed by entitlements and interest payments on the debt. Nothing will be left for discretionary spending, including defense.

Yet when they even talk about this threat to our well-being, both candidates call for more of the same. Trump vows, “We’re gonna save your Social Security without making any cuts. Mark my words.” Clinton promises that she will “enhance and protect Social Security for future generations by asking the wealthiest to contribute more, and expand benefits for widows” and those who take time from work to care for children or sick relatives. No one wants to go near this third rail, because addressing the issue would require asking the people to make sacrifices, and that would require making long wonkish arguments that put most people to sleep. Ask Paul Ryan what happened when he proposed a modest cut not in spending, but in the yearly automatic increase in spending. He ended up in a political ad pushing a granny in a wheelchair over a cliff. Two-minute statements in a televised debate are tailor-made for avoiding such hard truths and promising even more of the poison killing our economy.

So too with foreign policy. There’s no way to definitively destroy ISIS without tens of thousands of American combat forces. But that is a politically toxic proposition right now, and the argument for it would require a serious discussion about America’s role in the world as the guardian of global order and commerce, and the consequences of abdicating that responsibility, evident in the carnage of the fragmenting Middle East, and the blowback here at home in ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks. Yet Trump claims he has a “foolproof way for defeating ISIS” he can’t divulge, or will formulate after he talks with generals and advisors. But he is clear that we should not be the world’s “policeman,” an attitude that has created a geopolitical “Ferguson effect.” Clinton pretty much agrees with that sentiment, and promises to continue Obama’s failed tactics against ISIS like “a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set.” The empty proposals of both candidates are perfect for the two-minute statements and bickering of our televised presidential debates.

In 1858 Lincoln and Douglas spent a total of 21 hours debating the most consequential issue of their day, slavery. We are facing numerous issues of vast import for our interests and security, and all we get are glorified commercials full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Whoever wins the debate, the American people are the losers.