Clinton, Trump, and the State of Debate

BY CALEB BALDWIN Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump debates Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Mark Ralston/Pool via AP)

The race for President of the United States of America almost always boils down to two candidates battling it out against each other in speeches, ads, and, in today’s hyper-connected world, on social media. The necessary conflict between two candidates, representing two different political ideologies in a winner-take-all system, is the reason why the presidential debates are so important; they are the few opportunities for candidates to set forth their policy and express their readiness to become president, accountable to their opponent, to a moderator, and to the American people. Thus, debates are reputed among the most impactful moments of any presidential election.

Now that the final debate of the 2016 election is over, however, it's now safe to say that the opportunity to showcase a productive comparison of policy and a cohesive plan for the next four years has been squandered. Clinton, especially in the third debate, was evasive and often eschewed answering questions to instead repeat her ultimately vague stump speech. The greater problem was Trump, who throughout the debates has displayed a reality show ostentatiousness that transforms the debates from a serious comparison of policy to a spectacle. His constant interruptions and wild accusations, along with his misinformed ramblings and the ‘what will he say next?’ ridiculousness he has brought to this year’s debates, has made them entertaining certainly, but not substantial. 

Trump’s hijinks and both candidates’ trepidation over discussing actual policy both play into what seems to be a very human urge to turn the debates into plain entertainment. It’s not exclusive to these debates either; the most memorable moments of past presidential debates haven’t been impassioned speeches on political ideology or brilliant defenses of one’s political platform. They have been the mistakes and slip-ups that not only make fodder for Saturday Night Live impersonations, but more importantly have significant influence over the actual outcome of the election. Al Gore, who lost by a razor-thin margin to former President George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, is remembered in the debates for loudly sighing during Bush’s remarks. Rick Perry, during the 2012 primaries, forgot which government agency he wanted to cut and followed his forgetfulness up with an “oops.” These sorts of faux pas seem small when compared to the fiasco of this election cycle, but it points to the fact that, on some level, the electorate wants to see candidates fail spectacularly.

During the final presidential debate last week, Hillary Clinton made a brilliant and heartfelt rebuttal to Trump’s simplistic and misinformed opinion on abortion. It was the sort of moment that humanized Clinton, a candidate who has often been characterized as untrustworthy, and gave real insight into her potential policy on reproductive rights. That will not be what is remembered from the debate. According to Google, the highest number of hits on its search engine after the debate went to “Trump and Putin,” “Donald Trump Lips for Eyes,” “Bad Ombre,” “Puppet,” and finally “Bigly.” The fact that these amusing little quips and follies, rather than more substantive discussions, make their way around both news and social media reflects the level of interest people have in the debate. In fact, it reflects people’s attitudes towards presidential campaigns in general. It is incumbent on American voters not to watch presidential debates and eagerly wait for something to go wrong, or to track campaigns for controversies rather than to understand their candidates’ platforms. Americans deserve to see their candidates answer hard questions with honesty, grace, and preparation, instead of taking the easy way out by evading questions and creating a spectacle. Americans need to challenge their candidates to answer why they are the best possible candidate to be President of the United States, rather than laugh and gasp when two candidates fight to prove who is the worst.