Looking ahead to the presidential debates

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The first presidential debate will take place two weeks from today. Like all of these debates this year (see table below), it will begin at 9:00 PM (ET) and run about 90 minutes. Heavy viewership is expected despite NFL games on tap.
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Here’s the format prescribed by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), accessed

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.

The same guidelines will apply for the third presidential debate, and similar guidelines (9 time segments of 10 minutes) for the VP debate. The second presidential debate will have a town hall format, meaning the moderators won’t ask all of the questions.

In a change from 2012, no effort will be made to differentiate between the presidential debates based on subject area, e.g., designate one of the debates as being about foreign policy.

A major uncertainty remains: will the debates be between the candidates of the two major parties or include the Libertarian Party candidates (Gary Johnson & William Weld)? To make the cut, the Libertarian ticket would need to show a 15%+ support level in national polls (not achieved to date).

The CPD hopes the format of the debates will facilitate “an in-depth exploration of the major topics in this year’s election.” Such a result might be achieved if the moderators asked “good questions,” the candidates answered responsively, and the American public was paying attention. Experience suggests, however, that these conditions may not be satisfied.

A. Moderators – In a one-on-one session with a political figure, interviewers typically attempt to ask questions that in addition to being intrinsically important will force subjects off their usual talking points. Inquiring about a subject’s past statements or actions is appropriate as such matters have a logical bearing on statements about future intentions.

In a debate, on the other hand, the moderator’s task is to get the debaters to take positions on a common set of issues so members of the audience can decide which answers they favor. Testing of credibility remains desirable, but it can best be accomplished by the opposing candidates – subject to the moderator’s responsibility to maintain order and ensure time constraints are observed.

Debate moderators may find it necessary to play a more active role if there are a large number of participants, but even then they should try to keep the focus on the debaters rather than themselves. In this regard, we didn’t like the way in which a Fox News team (Brett Baier, Megyn Kelly & Chris Wallace) handled the prime time session (10 debaters) of the first GOP primary debate on August 6, 2015. Two fearless predictions about the presidential race [neither of which panned out, chalk it up to wishful thinking],

Our main criticism of the prime time debate would be that the moderators seemed to think it was about them versus the candidates. Nearly 1/3 of the debate time was chewed up by the moderators talking, and their tone during the introductory and closing segments seemed excessively self-congratulatory.

Other observers think, however, that debate moderators should adjust their approach for the individual participants they are questioning. Here’s an example of this viewpoint.

Jennifer Rubin (credited with writing “from a conservative perspective”) of the Washington Post recently suggested some questions for Clinton (
9/4/16) and Trump (9/6/16) in the upcoming debates.

The intent of her lines of questioning boils down to helping Clinton and taking down Trump.

•The trick with Clinton is getting her to be explicit about ways in which she would differ from the Obama administration and be able to confront her liberal base.

• The task with Donald Trump is entirely different. His biggest flaws include his character, attitudes toward women and minorities, his ludicrous policy proposals, and his jaw-dropping ignorance. Allowing Trump to demonstrate those, removing the mask of bravado and stripping the veneer of business prowess, should be the moderators’ goal.

Not one of Rubin’s questions would be posed to both candidates – even though the CPD debate format calls for segments that would begin with the moderator posing a question and asking both candidates to answer it. What are we missing?

On September 7, Clinton and Trump participated in a Commander-In-Chief Forum hosted by NBC. This hour-long event might be described as a cross between an interview and a debate. The format was back-to-back sessions with Matt Lauer (who asked most of the questions, although some were taken from the military veterans audience); there was a commercial break in the middle and the candidates were never on stage at the same time.

The goal of the forum, according to Lauer, was for the candidates to explain to the American public why they should be trusted to assume the weighty responsibilities of being CIC.

Both candidates were asked at the outset to discuss their own capabilities and refrain from (or at least minimize) negative comments about their opponent. Clinton deviated from this “speak no evil of your opponent” commitment several times; Trump (who has no government experience and is running as a change candidate) basically ignored it.

There was no way for Trump and Clinton to challenge each other’s statements, so Lauer played the role of keeping the candidates honest. In our view, he did this in a reasonably evenhanded manner. There was liberal griping aplenty, however, that Lauer grilled Clinton about her e-mail problems while accepting Trump’s denial that he had ever supported the Iraq war. Democrats accuse Matt Lauer of bias at NBC veteran’s forum, Chris Pleasance, dailymail.com,

Incidentally, Clinton’s claim that Trump initially favored the Iraq War – and is dissembling now - is based on a single comment Trump made on the Howard Stern show about six months before the US invaded Iraq, the thrust of which is hardly crystal clear. As debates near, forum shows potential Trump advantage [not having a record to defend], Byron York, Washington Examiner,

On Sept. 11, 2002, Stern asked Trump, "Are you for invading Iraq?" Trump answered, haltingly, "Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time [in the Gulf War of 1991, when the US opted to leave Saddam Hussein in power] it was done correctly."

OK, having said what the debate moderators should not seek to do (engage with the candidates in either an adversarial or supportive way), what is their primary function? In our view, they should ask tough questions expressed in “plain English” and call on the candidates to address them. See, e.g., the questions for presidential candidates that SAFE posted over a year ago (
6/9/15). Several references would require updating, but otherwise they remain apropos.

Will SAFE’s questions or the equivalent get asked or will some of the moderators go astray? Time will tell.

B. Candidates – When asked questions that don’t play to their perceived advantage, political candidates tend to equivocate, change the subject, or attempt to shift the onus to their opponents. Here are some examples from the presidential debate archives:

#In the second presidential debate of 2008, moderator Tom Brokaw asked several questions (although they could have been harder hitting) about how the candidates would propose to cut spending and/or trim entitlement programs. The responses were brief and loaded with airy generalities. For example:

McCain – So we're going to have to tell the American people that spending is going to have to be cut in America. And I recommend a spending freeze that -- except for defense, Veterans Affairs, and some other vital programs, we'll just have to have across-the-board freeze.

Obama – I'm going to spend some money on the key issues [goes on to talk about healthcare, a different energy plan, and college affordability] that we've got to work on. *** but actually I'm cutting more than I'm spending so that it will be a net spending cut.

Both candidates managed to tout their own tax plans while attacking the tax plans of their opponent, however, although no questions had been asked about this subject. Famous last words: my tax cut plan will save the budget,

#In the final presidential debate of 2008, moderator Bob Schieffer asked about soaring deficit spending and what to do about it.

We found out yesterday that this year's deficit will reach an astounding record high $455 billion. Some experts say it could go to $1 trillion next year.

Both of you have said you want to reduce the deficit, but the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget ran the numbers on both of your proposals and they say the cost of your proposals, even with the savings you claim can be made, each will add more than $200 billion to the deficit.

Aren't you both ignoring reality? Won't some of the programs you are proposing have to be trimmed, postponed, even eliminated? Give us some specifics on what you're going to cut back.

The candidates’ suggestions for reducing budgeted spending were unimpressive, and neither suggested tackling the biggest challenge (reining in unbudgeted entitlement programs). Dueling healthcare plans,

Obama spoke about going through the federal budget line by line, page by page, and finding “a whole host of programs that don't work.” He offered few examples of such programs, however, seemingly preferring to talk about new programs – his healthcare plan, a serious energy policy, and the ability of our young people to go to college.

McCain suggested an across-the-board spending freeze, said he knew how to save billions of dollars in defense spending, and advocated eliminating subsidies for ethanol. He also committed to fight for a line-item veto and promised to veto “every earmark pork-barrel bill.”

#The CPD revised the presidential debates format for 2012 (adopting a six segment approach to facilitate more in-depth discussion), and the potential benefits quickly became apparent. The first presidential debate was instructive,

Thanks in large part to the revised format, the first debate was far crisper than the 2008 debates. The candidates had more influence over what was discussed and for how long, while the moderator (Jim Lehrer) played a supporting role.

If one candidate said something the other could logically dispute, the retribution was generally swift. Consider how the president repeatedly claimed (transcript 3, 4, 6) that the challenger is proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, which, by inference, will be paid for by the “middle class.” This picture had been painted before, e.g., in former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement speech at the Democratic National Convention. But now the challenger [Mitt Romney] had an opportunity to fire back (and did so every time) that the $5 trillion tax cut claim is
not factual.

#The president was better prepared for Romney’s responses in the
second debate, and moderator Candy Crowley appeared to be in his corner. Towards the end of the debate, Crowley backed the president in a dispute about what the record showed. After this exchange (see highlights below), an obviously rattled Romney never seemed to get his mojo back.

•ROMNEY: And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people. Whether there was some misleading, or instead whether we just didn't know what happened, you have to ask yourself why didn't we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration. How could we have not known?

•OBAMA: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime. *** And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive.

•CROWLEY: [After being prompted by the president to “get the transcript,” which turned out to be conveniently available, the moderator declared that “he [the president] did call it an act of terror,” and subsequently ruled that the time had come to move on.

On the merits, the challenger was on solid ground. While it’s true that the president used the words “no acts of terror” in his Rose Garden remarks on the day after the Benghazi attack, he did so in a statement about this nation’s resolve. The Benghazi attack was referred to as “an outrageous and shocking attack” and “senseless violence,” but never as “an act of terror” or “terrorist attack.” Transcript,

The president didn’t mention terrorism in his remarks at the transfer of remains ceremony (9/14/12) either, nor in his weekly address (9/15/12) or a speech to the UN General Assembly (9/25/12). And while others were primarily responsible for promoting the administration narrative that the attack had resulted from reactions to an anti-Islamist video, the president did reference a “crude and disgusting video” that “sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world” in his
speech to the UN.

C. American public – Viewership for this year’s presidential debates should handily exceed the results for the Obama/Romney matchup in 2012, and may prove record-shattering. When Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton meet for debates, TV ratings could explode, Esme Deprez, chicagotribune.com, 6/20/16.

Sept. 26 will be 56 years to the day [since] the first televised general-election debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. It was watched by 66 million people in grainy black and white, and the four debates between the two drew 60 percent of U.S. households on average. Less than 40 percent tuned in for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, Nielsen data show.

Some viewers will be seeking to learn where the candidates stand on the issues, no doubt, but a far bigger draw will be expectations that the debates will be a brawl and curiosity about who will be “the last person standing.” Ibid.

[Trump] has called [Clinton] a "fraud" with "zero natural talent" who should be in prison. She has said he is "temperamentally unfit" with "dangerously incoherent" ideas and "not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes." That was all in about 24 hours. They haven't even stepped onto the same stage yet.

In other presidential debates, decisive moments have often involved matters of style versus substance. Here are some well-known examples:

•In the first ever televised debate, Nixon appeared to be sweating profusely and he wasn’t as well dressed as Kennedy. The contrast in their appearance of the two men was widely noted. TV debate makes JFK superstar, Nixon a loser, Susan Donaldson James, abcnews.go.com,

•In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s avuncular putdown (“there you go again”) made far more of an impression than the comment (Jimmy Carter had accused Reagan of opposing Medicare and Social Security) to which he was reacting. Presidential debate on October 28, 1980,

•Al Gore’s exasperated sighs while George W. Bush was speaking during the first presidential debate in 2000 were apparently a habit he had developed in previous debates. In this case, however, they drew a lot of unfavorable attention. It turns out sighs matter, Lynn Smith, latimes.com,

No wonder Clinton et al. have been focusing on how to “handle Trump” versus boning up on the issues. Clinton debate prep is intense, Becket Adams, Washington Examiner,

For Clinton's team, debate prep has included hours of digging into Trump's past, according to a report published Monday evening by the New York Times. Her team is also consulting with psychology experts as they prepare for possible debate attacks and countermeasures from the billionaire businessman.

People generally get the leaders they deserve in a democracy, it’s been said, and that isn’t necessarily good. If you don’t like either of the presidential candidates, blame the 15% or so of the electorate who chose them. And even if far more Americans had voted in the primaries, we might still have a problem because most people lack the knowledge or motivation to cast their votes in an informed manner. Blame voters, not the candidates, Linda Chavez, townhall.com,

The trend in recent years has been to expand the franchise more and more broadly, which in theory is a good thing, but only if the people casting their vote understand the system in which they are participating. Call me an elitist -- I've been called worse -- but I want voters to do more than show up and vote for the person they like the most or against the one they detest. I want them to understand the duties and limits the Constitution imposes on the commander in chief. I want them to have some understanding of the separation of powers, of why majority rule cannot abrogate unpopular but constitutionally protected minority opinions and rights. I want them to be informed enough about the policy differences between the candidates to get some glimpse into how each would govern.

But that’s not to say the goal of debating the issues is not worthwhile, because it can’t hurt and it might – just might – do some good. If you agree, pass it on!


Debates could be a big changer. – SAFE member (DE)

Moderators will try to tip the balance. They cannot be trusted. – SAFE director 

History always repeats itself. - Civic activist

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