Debating the debate by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.


gavelMonday night’s Clinton/Trump debate won’t be Lincoln/Douglas. No Demosthenes or Cicero here. Even if the candidates were inclined to that level of discourse, the American public would probably not be prepared to give it the time or its undivided attention. It won’t be a classical debate, scored by nonpartisan judges on technical aspects of the arguments made. It’s not even on a par with the often colorless but information-rich debates arranged by the League of Women Voters.

Debates today, controlled by candidates and the networks, are more akin to a live TV game  show. The contestants are more likely to be judged on their performance skills, zingers and body language than on the content of their answers. There will be penalty points for unforced errors. So what should we expect?

We know that Hillary Clinton can be a policy wonk and that she’s deft in presenting facts and maneuvering around specifics. Will she go on too long (too long, that is, for contemporary audiences)? Will she choose her words so carefully that she seems to be hiding something? Will she smile or find another way to “humanize” her personality?  If she laughs, will it sound forced? Can she eviscerate Trump while still being “likable enough”? I’m reminded of those who voted for Bush 43 instead of wonky Al Gore because W. was “a guy you’d want to go out for a beer with.” Great way to select a President!

The trickier question is: which charlatan persona of Donald Trump will show up? The teleprompter-reading (a support he won’t have), better modulated candidate who can pretend he is conversant with the issues? Or the fear-monger and venomous attacker of the vulnerable?  Will he tell shades of the truth? Or, even more important, how will Hillary (or the moderator) challenge him when he outright lies?  If Trump is blatant in his misstatements, will he be held accountable?  If he attacks Clinton, will she get flustered? Maybe her intense debate prep will pay off.

From the outset, expectations of the two candidates have long been wildly disparate. Both have tried lowering expectations. Trump is viewed as a novice debater, especially when substance is involved.  He defeated 16 primary opponents, although never having to go one on one.  If he doesn’t wet the rug, he’ll win rave reviews. But he already is the better TV performer.  Hillary is an experienced debater with a wealth of information.  If she makes one small mistake, she’ll be pilloried.  People expect more of her -no, they demand more – and that unfairly stacks the deck.

I’m thankful for the Red Sox and the Patriots, who have been a welcome diversion from what has been an anxiety-producing, rather disgusting campaign. But, for all of its limitations as a vehicle for serious discussion of important issues, our quadrennial showdown has arrived. Monday night is where the rubber hits the road, with only 42 days and two more debates to recover.

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