Wednesday, October 12, 2016

#213 - I Tried, Really!

Sunday night, I sat down to watch the second Presidential debate. At least, that was the plan.

I watched in hopes of getting an idea of specific policy points from the candidates, specific arguments in support of their stands on the issues. You know, an actual debate.

What I saw instead was more akin to an elementary schoolyard war of words: "Did not!" "Did too!" "I know I am, but what are you?" "Takes one to know one."

Beyond that, Sunday night's debate seemed an attempt by one candidate to browbeat and bully the other candidate (as well as the moderators) into submission through the use of continued interruption.

After 40-minutes, I'd had enough and could no longer watch. I knew I would get nothing of substance from the debate. Instead, I would only get more of what passes these days for political theater or reality TV. If I wanted either of those, I would watch an episode of Madam Secretary or Survivor. (For the record, I concluded that Clinton's non-answers were closer to being on-topic than were Trump's, as he seemed to only be interested in talking about emails.)

I also had a pretty good sense of how the day-after debate news cycle would run. Trump supporters would declare him yet again as the debate winner while hammering the moderators for being members of the "liberal media" and Clinton supporters, something Trump himself set the stage for when he complained about the debate being "three against one."

From the vantage point of my easy chair, it seemed the moderators were only trying, with limited success, to do their jobs. They have basically four responsibilities: ask questions; try to keep candidates on topic; try to get candidates to keep their answers within predetermined time constraints; and perhaps most importantly, keep candidates from interrupting while another candidate is speaking.

I give the moderators a B-plus for effort and a D-minus for execution, although the lack of execution is not really their fault given that they have no power to truly control the candidates' behavior or actions during the debate.

Donald Trump has taken Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit" and inverted it, turning it into a pulpit from which to bully those who disagree with him. His behavior during the debates seriously suggests Trump would be unable and, perhaps worse, unwilling as President to listen to or consider opposing viewpoints and scenarios from advisers.

A President has to be able to consider all options before becoming locked in on a course of action and must be able to change tactic when a specific action is clearly not working. Trump's actions, words, and behavior during the campaign suggest he would be unable and unwilling to make such changes and would instead "double down" on the action or tactic already shown as not working.

I do not think Trump is capable of or is willing to change his behavior and demeanor before the third Presidential debate in one week's time. At least not without some help in the form of a change to the debate rules.

This leads me to a suggestion I humorously made on Facebook but one which I think deserves some serious consideration. This will require some real strength of spirit on the part of moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News and debate organizers. I don't expect such strength, but in the spirit of hope springing eternal, here goes.

First, enforce the two-minute limit of candidate responses. The two-minute clock located in the candidate's line of sight is clearly not working in and of itself. How to remedy this? At the two-minute mark, the moderator says "fifteen seconds" to give the candidate a chance to wrap up their remarks. At the 2:15 mark, the candidate's microphone is turned off and not turned back on until it is the candidate's turn to respond to another question.

Second, keep candidates on topic. How can a moderator do this, you ask? Especially when candidates seem to think (based on past Presidential debate history) they can simply take any question in whatever direction they want to go? Enter the microphone strategy again.

If/When a candidate begins to veer completely away from a question's topic, the moderator should remind the candidate once to return to topic. If/When that fails, the candidate's microphone should be turned off (I think you're beginning to see a trend here), and the moderator should say, "If you are not going to answer the question, we will move on" to either the other candidate's answer or to another question.

Third, keep candidates from interrupting one another during answers. The first offense should result in the moderator politely asking the offending candidate to refrain until it is his or her turn to respond. The second response should result in a candidate's microphone being turned off, with no further warning, until it is his or her turn to speak. This process should be automatically repeated (i.e., the microphone turned off without warning) for the remainder of the debate whenever a candidate interrupts.

While these proposals are designed specifically with Donald Trump and his verbal-bullying tactics in mind, they should be applied equally to Hillary Clinton should she transgress. I have no hope of these ideas actually being implemented, but they would, even if artificially, restore something sadly lacking in the debates and in the overall campaign, civility. (Of course, they could also result in some truly entertaining political theater should Trump storm off the stage because he isn't being allowed to rampage through the debate like a bull in a china shop.)

Based on the 40-minutes of the debate I watched Sunday night and the numerous Internet memes I've seen on Facebook, I'd say civility is something we are sadly in need of in this election year. However, I think it is safe to say that one has better odds of winning the lottery than of witnessing anything resembling true civil discourse during the remainder of the 2016 Presidential campaign.