Who’s in Charge Here: The debates might matter, thanks to Trump

(AP file)
(AP file)

RICHMOND, (WRIC) — I am generally not a fan of political debates.

Don’t get me wrong: as a political scientist, I like political debate (singular). People and politicians should have arguments for their policy choices. And they should be willing to defend these choices, responsive to counter-arguments and, ideally, able to change when confronted with new ideas and evidence.

But that’s not what national political debates have become. Instead, they are pure theater, engineered by campaign operatives to be as stilted, canned, and orchestrated as possible. Presidential debates even deploy “spin rooms” where media get (often preposterous) responses from the campaigns to each pre-planned speech from the candidate that supposedly answers a question.

You learn so little from these media events about policy differences, in fact, that I’ve argued in the past that you can just skip them. In a Richmond-Times Dispatch op-ed a few years ago, I suggested that you should instead “seek out good sources of data about the candidates’ positions. Look for issue-based interviews in print media….  Check voting scorecards and ratings on the issues that matter to you from interest groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and the National Rifle Association.” Still good advice.

[Incidentally, the trend towards empty “debating” has been countered here in RVA in an encouraging sign for local democracy. This election season has featured a host of events, run by local civic groups, featuring the mayoral, city council and school board candidates. We’ve seen some pointed exchanges, particularly by the mayoral candidates, and most candidates are saying similar things about the city’s problems. But, in general, these events have been uniformly substantive and civil. Even Joe Morrissey is behaving himself! (Mostly.)]

But the presidential debates might actually matter this year. The main reason is the same straw that has stirred the drink all election season: Donald Trump. Critics of Hillary Clinton are probably correct to question her past truthfulness, but her opponent has staked out a dramatically novel position on the importance of saying things that are actually true. As in, he’s basically a bald-faced liar.

Over and over again, Trump says things that are patently false. Sometimes, he exaggerates, as when he claimed to speak to a crowd of 15,000 in Phoenix in July (it was really 4,000) or when he said in March that the Wisconsin unemployment rate was 20% (it was 4-8%, depending on how you measure). Other times, he could be charitably described as just being mistaken, as when he suggested that his book was the top-selling business book of all time (it isn’t) or that the New York Times could not be sued for publishing false information (it could be).

But more often he just lies – about events (the hijackers’ wives left the US before the 9/11 attacks!), about his campaign (I’ve spent $30 million already!), about his past (I never said Bush lied about Iraq!). In fact, the news organization PolitiFact has evaluated over 250 statements that Trump has made in the past two years. It rates an astonishing 70 percent, or 179, as at least “mostly false.” Almost 50, or 18 percent, of his statements, earn the dreaded “Pants on Fire” rating for being outrageously false. This is some next-level lying, even for a politician.

And yet Trump still remains within striking distance of the Presidency, with the latest polls suggesting he’s behind by only a few percentage points in key battleground states. Voters, particularly Trump’s loyal supporters, seem unwilling to reconsider their position on Trump even as he makes lying almost a daily part of his campaign rhetoric.

Which brings us to the final major events in this campaign: the Presidential debates. There are three scheduled over the next few weeks, with the first one coming next Monday night at Hofstra University. While the campaigns will undoubtedly try to dictate the stories that come out of each night, Trump’s participation adds an element of unpredictability. The key question, at least as far as I’m concerned, is this: will Donald Trump tell the truth? And if he doesn’t, will anyone care?

The role of the moderator becomes important here, especially in the light of Matt Lauer’s widely panned performance in last month’s “commander-in-chief forum.” Lauer spent almost half of his time with Clinton on her e-mail issues and failed to challenge Trump when he (again) lied about his opposition to the Iraq War. Will Lester Holt be able to challenge any misinformation presented by either candidate – although let’s be real, it’s Trump we have to worry about – without coming off as combative or biased?

There’s some noise in recent media reports that Trump’s “Teflon Don” coating might finally be eroding. Concerns that he may have mismanaged funds from his charity to pay legal obligations – or that the entire charity is, in fact, a scam – have gathered some steam in the past few weeks. (The Trump campaign seems rattled, responding by personally attacking the Washington Post reporter responsible for the story.) It remains to be seen whether this is the final straw that convinces a chunk of Americans that electing such an accomplished liar might not be the best idea.

No matter what, the debates will be an important indicator of how the final weeks of this campaign will play out. Next Monday might be Clinton’s best chance to counter Trump’s lies with her experience and mastery of information. Still, the debate also represents a chance for Trump to show that there is no longer any political punishment for lying in the media. I, for one, will be watching.

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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