Guest Opinion: Debate answers few questions
For many years now presidential debates have become entertainment spectacles rather than substantive exchanges of ideas. But perhaps the date historians of the future will recall as the moment presidential races turned officially from politics to entertainment will be Sept. 26, 2016.
It’s perhaps also the moment where superficiality and rhetorical attacks trumped — no pun intended — discussions of philosophy and public policy. Even still, 2016’s first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be enough to give any American pause, for any number of reasons.
From the moderator to the candidates, from the questions to their answers, from the falsehoods to the pandering, there is a deep feeling of visceral regret and a surreal but relevant question: Are we watching a reality TV show, an episode of “House of Cards” or an actual presidential debate?
Both Clinton and Trump are deeply flawed presidential candidates and the debate stage put a magnifying glass on that fact. Neither candidate was aspirational; neither was particularly enlightening; and neither was remarkably inspiring. Most tragically, neither showed any aptitude or desire to be the much-needed uniting force our country needs today.
Trump’s debate performance was lackluster. He lacked the depth and breadth of information that one would hope for in a presidential contender. Instead of sticking to issues, he allowed himself to crawl deep in to the political weeds dwelling on topics and personalities that do not matter to most Americans and should have no relevance on a presidential debate stage. His responses to questions targeting him and his character by moderator Lester Holt were unsatisfactory at best.
Clinton’s performance was measured and calculated but far from illuminating. She stayed (mostly) to talking points we’ve heard dozens of times on the campaign trail with responses unlikely to sway the opinions of any meaningful number of voters in her favor. Clinton’s highly scripted responses benefited though in contrast to Trump’s oft disjointed responses.
Clinton also benefited from favorable questions and a lack of critical follow-up from Holt. For example, there was no follow up question on Clinton’s involvement in conspiring against the Bernie Sanders campaign in the Democratic Party primary nor did Holt press the former secretary of state on her ongoing email scandal — an issue that has been linked to her plummeting in recent polls. Holt also did not direct any critical questions at Clinton about those topics or any others.
In contrast, Holt targeted Trump with questions — and argued with him — at least twice, over issues that have been subject of attacks by the Clinton campaign. First, Holt essentially asked if Trump’s silly campaign to have President Barack Obama release his birth certificate was motivated by race. Second, Holt asked if Trump’s recent comments about Clinton were sexist. These are valid questions, certainly, but similar questions ought to have been asked of Clinton.
No candidate for the presidency of the United States should get a free pass from being questioned critically about his or her record. And when there is even the appearance of such imbalance it not only calls into question the efficacy of a fair debate but also gives credence to the arguments made by critics about bias in media.
To assume this debate decided the election would be foolhardy. Both candidates performed as to be expected.
Many pundits will argue that Clinton won this debate. That’s a fair assessment. She carried herself like a capable politician. Trump did not. He carried himself as an anti-politician, an outsider with little interest in the norms and etiquette of political life. But that’s the exact shtick that’s gotten him this far in the race and why this is an incredibly close and competitive presidential race that will likely come down to the wire.