Opinion by Professor Ian T. Lising
The circus is coming to Hofstra University on Monday. The first Presidential Debate between Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Nominee Donald Trump will hit the stage in Hempstead, New York. As much as I have been extremely critical of presidential debates in the United States over the last few decades, I must admit that I am as curious as the next person to watch the spectacle unravel.
Debates are a peculiar event, especially if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for and listening to. It’s not like watching a play or musical performance since there really isn’t a script and there are limits to how much rehearsal can prepare you for it. If it is a great debate, the best parts actually happen organically. Outside of the possible “you’re no Jack Kennedy” moments (yes, I know, that was a vice presidential debate), what should you be expecting from Monday evening’s event?
The Commission on Presidential Debates crafted the following format: “The debate will be divided into six time segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator and announced at least one week before the debate. The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.”
I have had several issues with the way the format works. It lends itself too well to permitting the two minute responses transforming into prepared statements that the debaters will rarely venture too far from. Translation: they have talking points and will pretty much stick to them. This is the most frustrating part since the debaters will typically repeat what they said over and over again, no matter what the moderator or their opponent will challenge them with. This is how Donald Trump decimated his Republican opponents in the primaries. He just yells the same sound bites louder with each loop. He’s mastered television bullying with years of practice on the Apprentice. But Hillary will be a much more formidable opponent and his nonresponsive responses will make him look even more awkward. So it could either get really ugly or just plain boring.
Because of the format, there is so much more responsibility on the moderator to ensure that there is actual clash between the debaters. Lester Holt will have to do a lot of heavy lifting to eradicate our memory of his NBC colleague Matt Lauer’s disastrous turn as forum moderator earlier this month. A registered Republican, Holt already received Trump’s ire as he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly: “Lester is a Democrat. It’s a phony system. They are all Democrats. It’s a very unfair system.” Holt will have to toe a very fine line with loose cannon Trump and seasoned politico Clinton to keep things fair.
Much of the Donald’s appeal is that he is unpredictable. He has gotten away with deliberately spreading misleading information, spewing half-truths and outright bald-faced lies throughout his campaign. It is so astonishing that he’s said things on almost a daily basis that would have sunk other campaigns. But that is what he is and where his appeal comes from. You can expect him to say things that would make your uncle (yes, we all have that one) cheer and almost everyone else cringe.
We can expect her to play the cool customer who will smile and shake her head every time Trump says something incredible. So expect her to be shaking her head pretty much the whole night. She has taken several perceived hits to her reputation, so she may be a bit on the defensive. But knowing her capacity to hit hard herself, she will come out swinging. She will try to bury Trump with a lot of data and evidence, which will turn off some viewers who just want carnage and don’t want to do a whole lot of thinking.
The Bottom Line
Don’t expect this to be the pinnacle of intelligent oratorical discourse. Don’t expect it to be the straw that finally breaks one of the candidates and clearly puts the spotlight on the other as the next President of the United States. Not just yet. Just expect it to be entertaining. At least we hope it will be.