Guest Opinion: Debate isn’t the best way
There are some misconceptions about the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that may be relevant to Monday night’s oratorical tilt between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. First: Abraham Lincoln may have won the debates, but he lost the race to Stephen A. Douglas, which was for the U.S. Senate, not the presidency. The lesson is that as important as debates can be, they may not decide an election.
Nothing new was learned Monday night. Clinton, who smiled a lot in trying to appear more personable, was predictably well-prepared. Trump was self-assured, but evasive on some issues and ill-informed on others. Maybe the most surprising aspect of the debate was how little time was spent on Clinton’s missing emails.
The ballyhoo before the first of three scheduled presidential debates at times resembled the build-up to a heavyweight prize fight, with moderator Lester Holt serving as referee. A predicted 100 million viewers, more typical of a Super Bowl audience, was based primarily on the event’s entertainment potential and not politics.
Trump at times was clearly irritated, but avoided the name-calling he resorted to in the Republican debates. It was hard to imagine him and Clinton in a format resembling the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with each speaker having 90 minutes to express his policies and positions.
One easy way to make the remaining debates more enlightening than entertaining would be to limit each event to one topic. That wouldn’t work when the Republicans had 10 candidates on the stage. But when it’s down to two, voters should be given more substance to help make up their minds.
Imagine if Clinton and Trump spent 90 minutes discussing how their approaches to fighting the war on terrorism would differ from President Barack Obama’s. The moderator could ask specific questions after the candidates had outlined their foreign policies. Perhaps each candidate would get to ask the other a question on the topic as well. One-line zingers wouldn’t be all that was remembered.
Issues as complex as the Black Lives Matter movement, which concerns much more than police treatment of African Americans, need more time for discussion than the paltry minutes they get in the current debate format. Residents of poor rural and urban areas beset by joblessness, poverty and crime want to hear more than, “I feel your pain.”
Until the next debate, analysts will be telling us whether they think Clinton or Trump won. Those assessments will likely affect polls since it is human nature to want to be on the winning side. Rather than succumb to that urge, voters need to understand that watching a TV debate may help, but its herky-jerky format prevents it from being the best way to find out who has the experience, aptitude and attitude to be president.