When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for the first of three presidential debates next month, the viewing audience will be most interested in hearing how they propose to protect the American people from terrorism, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. To the extent that terrorism dominates the agenda, it is likely to create a real dilemma for both Clinton and for whoever is brave (or foolhardy) enough to agree to serve as moderator.
Trump has plainly decided to make protecting the nation from terrorists -- “radical Islamic terrorists,” he would say -- the focus of his campaign. In a speech Monday, he proposed a complete reorientation of the country’s law enforcement and immigration systems as part of that strategy.
The problem for Clinton and the prospective debate moderator is that, as Trump demonstrated Monday, he is willing to lie repeatedly about the issue. Writing for the Washington Post this morning, Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye He Lee identified falsehood after falsehood in Trump’s speech, many of which have been debunked so many times that the candidate cannot realistically claim to believe they are true.
But fact-checking Trump in real-time is not something either Clinton herself or a moderator is likely to do, said Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and the author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
He said Clinton probably wouldn't want to pounce on every one of Trump’s false statements, if only because it gets in the way of delivering her own message. “There is a school of thought now that you don’t spend the time fact checking your opponent during the debate,” said Schroeder. “There are other mechanisms for doing that.”
Whoever moderates the debate will undoubtedly be very aware of the political blowback that CNN anchor Candy Crowley, who has since retired, suffered after she fact-checked Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the second presidential debate in 2012.
“There is this political dimension that has increased in intensity around the job of being moderator,” said Schroeder. “It makes them a little gun shy about insinuating themselves into the fact checking. Anybody who takes this job, this is going to be one of their challenges -- and it’s a big challenge.”
There is also a journalism ethics question involved, he said, because there is real tension between being a reporter dedicated to presenting the facts, and being a neutral moderator. “I’m not sure how aggressive a moderator should be in that regard,” Schroeder said. “You’re there to facilitate the conversation and not to become part of the conversation.”
Of course, while Clinton may have to decide how to deal with an opponent who traffics in staggering amounts of misinformation, the debate will also be very new territory for Trump.
The former reality television star never stood on a debate stage with fewer than three other people during the Republican primaries, and those debates contained multiple television breaks and leaped from subject to subject sometimes at the candidates’ whim.
Two of the three scheduled presidential debates will be much more tightly structured, with candidates expected to deliver detailed and lengthy answers on specific subjects. (A third will be in a “Town Hall” format.)
“It’s so hard to arrive at any intelligent judgment about him because of the unpredictability factor,” said Schroeder, “But I think one thing that’s going to be a big challenge for him is the amount of time -- it’s 90 minutes with no breaks...That’s very different from the debates he has taken part in up to this point.”
Clinton, he said, “is more familiar with this setting and this particular time challenge -- because it is a time challenge, how you sustain your energy, how you modulate your performance, how you remain knowledgeable and authoritative over an hour and a half.”
Bluster and generalities carried Trump through the more chaotic primary debates, but might wear thin in a series of more sedate policy-focused arguments. And, said Schroeder, Trump’s reported resistance to seriously studying and preparing for the debates could become a real problem as well.
“We don’t remember the content of debates after they are over so much as we remember the human impression,” he said. “But part of forming that impression is your ability to be in control of the material. Nobody expects a candidate to know everything, but you do need to leave a general sense that you are familiar with the topics, that you have given it some thought, and that you are not caught off guard by any material that arises.”
That’s a bar Clinton should clear with ease. Trump, on the other hand, has spent most of his prior debate performances diving under it.