SEPT. 13, 2016 — Some political debates are about ideas and issues. The 1858 U.S. Senate debates in Illinois between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln focused on the future of slavery in America. The candidates talked for a total of three hours in each of seven sessions, exploring, as Douglas put it, the “leading political topics which now agitate the public mind.”
Three hours? We’re against that.
Modern presidential debates owe a debt to Lincoln-Douglas for setting the precedent of candidates jousting on a shared stage, but each election also exists in its own time. And so we’re struck by how different this year’s debates are shaping up compared with contests recent and distant. Two weeks before the first scheduled presidential debate Sept. 26, the single question agitating the public’s mind is not whose ideas are more substantial or exciting, but something far more prosaic: Who is fit to lead our nation?
And given events of recent days, the stakes couldn’t be much higher for this year’s major-party candidates. Then there’s a certain third-party candidate …
If you think about presidential elections since the first televised debate (Kennedy vs. Nixon on Sept. 26, 1960, in Chicago), you find stark contrasts in backgrounds and politics. But we’ve seen nothing like Clinton vs. Trump in terms of the public’s skepticism of both candidates.
Donald Trump, a real estate developer and reality TV star, has no prior experience in public service or even public accountability. His campaign M.O. is to make grandiose promises, avoid specifics about what he’d actually do as president and fill most of the rest of his waking hours with outrageous comments. Then he wakes up the next morning and does it again. A majority of voters find him unlikable and unqualified to be president.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is a former secretary of state, senator and first lady, steeped in national leadership experience. Yet her candidacy divides the country more than it unifies voters behind the history-making prospect of electing America’s first female president. Clinton’s problems center on trust and judgment: The head of the FBI cites her for being “extremely careless” for mishandling sensitive emails as secretary of state. That scandal feeds a nagging sense that she’s a corner-cutter whose ambitions drive her decisions. A majority of voters find her unlikable and untrustworthy.
Polling is clear on the public’s antipathy for both candidates, but we saw something new and, frankly, shocking in a 50-state survey by The Washington Post and SurveyMonkey: Nationally, 55 percent of respondents say Clinton would threaten the nation’s well-being. The number for Trump is 61 percent. Threaten the nation’s well-being? You’d think the question was asked about Vladimir Putin and the ayatollah of Iran.
This election will go on even if, on a dark and stormy night, many voters wouldn’t invite a stranded Trump or Clinton to sleep on the sofa. The last few days have raised even more questions about each candidate’s capacity to lead. During a televised forum broadcast from the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York, Trump went on a bizarre jag about Putin (the otherwise ruthless Russian dictator who invaded Crimea and supports Iran) being a better leader than President Barack Obama.
Clinton, meanwhile, opened herself anew to criticism by her secretive and misleading management of a medical issue. Diagnosed on Friday with pneumonia, a treatable ailment, the candidate kept the news to herself but then appeared frail at Sunday’s 9/11 memorial event in New York. Her staff said the candidate became “overheated” but soon-viral video showed her in a swoon or slump. Soon after, she reappeared and declared she was “feeling great.” Finally, after hiding the truth, her camp acknowledged the pneumonia. Let’s assume she’ll recover from that soon enough. But will Clinton ever get over her consuming fear of straight talk?
The good news is that the debates will provide the biggest stage and least scripted opportunity for voters to assess the candidates. Our view is that given the public’s discomfort with Clinton and Trump, the leading third-party candidate, Gary Johnson of the Libertarians, should be invited to participate.
Regardless of whether Johnson is included, this year’s debates will be historic because there is an unusually strong chance they will prove decisive. Trump and Clinton, edging closer in the polls, have a lot to prove to the American public. We won’t be looking for a reboot of Lincoln-Douglas We’ll be listening for direct, specific answers from each about their respective visions of the presidency.