A Former Debater Previews Tonight's Presidential "Debate" (and Proposes a Drinking Game)

by Michael Dorf

Tonight is the much-anticipated first of three presidential (and one vice-presidential) "debates" between the Republican and Democratic candidates. I have put the word in quotation marks to reflect the fact that, as Jill Lepore explains in an excellent recent article in The New Yorker, the presidential debates are more like simultaneous press conferences than conventional debates. Having said that, I hasten to add that while I do not think the format for tonight's event is ideal, I also don't think that a conventional debate is ideal either.

Lepore quotes various people who distinguish between presidential debates and Oxford-style debates. In the latter, one side takes the affirmative and the other side takes the negative of some proposition. In principle, this approach could be adapted to presidential debates. For example, we could have a debate on the proposition "the next president needs to build on the accomplishments of the Obama administration," with Clinton taking the affirmative and Trump taking the negative. Or, we could have a debate on the proposition "America's allies are not pulling their weight," with Trump taking the affirmative and Clinton the negative. Or "law-abiding undocumented immigrants should be given a path to citizenship," with Clinton affirmative and Trump negative. Or "the Affordable Care Act should be repealed and replaced," with Trump affirmative and Clinton negative. But the problem is that there are really too many topics to cover, so that each debate would have to be structured around one extremely vague or a few quite vague topics. The result would end up being something like the subject areas that moderator Lester Holt will ask the candidates about tonight: (1) America's Direction; (2) Achieving Prosperity; and (3) Securing America.

There are two further difficulties with modeling a presidential debate on a conventional Oxford-style debate. The election is not merely a contest of ideas. Indeed, from Trump's perspective, it is not a contest of ideas at all, as his appeal is rooted in the notion that the problems we face are best addressed by simply giving him power unrestrained by "political correctness" (or, as some of us still quaintly call it, the Constitution). But even were the GOP nominee more conventional, voters wouldn't simply want to know what each candidates' taxing, spending, regulatory, and defense priorities are. Nor could the candidates have a serious discussion of which priorities are, all things considered, better, even if they both wanted to. These debates are also a kind of job interview--a test of each candidate's knowledge and demeanor under pressure.

The second difficulty with Oxford-style debates is, in my view, actually a problem whenever such debates are used to address public policy issues for a broad audience, rather than merely undertaken as a competitive sport. Consider the high-quality Oxford-style debates produced by Intelligence Squared. Pairs of experts debate one another on important issues in a lively back-and-forth. However, under the misguided impression that the point of the exercise is to determine which team debated better, the scoring is peculiar. The audience is polled before and after the debate about their position on the debate question. The winner is not the side with more supporters after the debate but the side with more supporters after than before. Thus, to give a hypothetical example, suppose the proposition were: "There should be a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." Suppose further that before the debate 99% of the audience disagreed with the proposition and 1% agreed. Then, let's imagine that after the debate, only 98% of the audience disagreed. The affirmative side would be declared the winner because the audience had shifted in its direction. That makes no sense at all if we are trying to figure out what sensible policy should be. Except in debate as sport, the point of debate should be to consider which of competing views is sounder, not to determine which debaters are more skilled.

I say this even though I was a reasonably successful college debater in Oxford-style debate. Thirty years ago, my debate partner  and I won the American Parliamentary Debate Association's national championship. Three years earlier, my now co-blogger, sometime co-author, and good friend Neil Buchanan won the same championship. (A list of annual champions can be found on the APDA website. Notably absent from the list is the most notorious APDA debater, Ted Cruz, who won a great many awards as a debater, but not the national championship.) Admittedly, these are less impressive accomplishments than one might think. College debate in the U.S. is fractured among various formats. Parliamentary debate was and remains popular mostly at Ivy League and other elite, mostly northeastern colleges (as you can tell from the list of APDA champions and venues), while other styles of debate tend to dominate elsewhere. Accordingly, Neil and I were "national champions" somewhat in the way that winners of the formerly Trump-branded Miss Universe pageant are the "most beautiful and talented" (female) beings in the universe. It's certainly not nothing, but it's not exactly what it sounds like.

But I digress. Turning back to tonight's debate, I want to issue a warning and then offer some advice to each candidate.

First, the warning. Inevitably and immediately, pundits, focus groups, and pollsters will try to determine "who won" the debate. As noted above, this is the wrong question when trying to ascertain the result of a public policy debate. It's also the wrong question when posed about the candidates.

Suppose that an undecided somewhat libertarian voter begins watching the debate thinking "I'm not ready to vote for Clinton because I think that like most Democrats, she favors too great a role for regulation, but I'm afraid of Trump because I think he's too much like Hitler." Now suppose that after the debate that same voter thinks "I still think Clinton favors too much regulation, but I now think that Trump is more like Mussolini than like Hitler." Under the Intelligence Squared approach of asking who moved you more, this voter would have to conclude that Trump won the debate. But that's nuts. If my somewhat libertarian voter is justly horrified by electing Mussolini president, he should vote for Clinton over Trump, even though Trump isn't quite as bad as he feared before the debate. As with public policy debates generally, the question voters should ask--and that therefore responsible, which is to say mostly nonexistent, pundits should ask--is not "which way were people moved by this debate?" but "who made the better case to be president?".

Note that what I've just said differs a bit from the usual complaint about expectations. That's an additional problem. Because Trump has so accustomed us to his lies and insults, there is a risk that he will be graded on a curve. "Look at that," one imagines a tv talking head saying. "Trump smiled when he shook Clinton's hand."

But even apart from the tendency of the media to report on how a candidate did relative to expectations rather than in some objective sense, there is a tendency for reporting on debates to go meta almost right away. Instead of dwelling on what Trump said he would actually do about undocumented immigrants already in the country and how that does or does not square with what he previously said, the punditocracy can be expected to pivot immediately to how his debate performance will play with the voters. Likewise for Clinton, even if there is nothing in her performance that calls into question her honesty and trustworthiness, expect the talking heads to go meta about whether what she said will suffice to lay to rest the (mostly groundless) doubts that the public have about her honesty and trustworthiness.

Now some advice to each candidate.

For Clinton: You have multiple goals for this debate. These include:
1) Demonstrate your preparedness for the job through your mastery of policy;
2) Undercut the media narrative and much-too-widely-held belief that you are dishonest and untrustworthy;
3) Connect with voters on a personal level by showing that you understand and care about their problems;
4) Prosecute the case against Trump based on his many years as a con man and the despicable (probably best to use a different word!) nature of his campaign;
5) Respond to the various dishonest and idiotic things Trump says during the debate.

No single answer to any question can do all of those things. Further, as a general matter, time spent attacking Trump is time not spent painting your own image and vice-versa. If it were my call, I'd strongly prioritize the affirmative goals of 1 through 3 because there are already lots of voters uneasy with Trump who are looking for a reason to vote for you rather than sitting out or casting a protest vote for Johnson or Stein. That's not to say you must completely ignore goals 4 and 5. It is instead to say that you should aim at those only insofar as it doesn't take much time away from your affirmative case. E.g., in the course of explaining all of the good work that the Clinton Foundation has done, you can contrast that with how the Trump Foundation spent $20,000 of money intended for charity to purchase a portrait of Trump. Or, in the course of delving deep into your experience combating al Qaeda and other jihadists, note that Trump's all-purpose claim that he wants to be "unpredictable" is obviously just a cover for the fact that he is a policy ignoramus. There are limited contexts in which game theory favors tactical unpredictability, but Trump invokes the supposed magic of unpredictability whenever he gets a question he can't answer.

For Trump: If I'm thinking only about the good of the country and the world, my main advice would be that you should crawl back under the jewel-encrusted rock from which you emerged last year, and thus save us from the catastrophe that we would risk should you manage to win the election. However, secure in the knowledge that neither you nor the people who try to package you to voters will actually read what I say here, I will pretend that I am being tortured in order to give you advice about how to do well in the debate. It's not so unrealistic, given the prominent role that torture and other war crimes (like plunder) would play in your foreign policy. Okay here goes:

Conventional wisdom says that you have an easier job in this debate because expectations are so low. That conventional wisdom is wrong. Expectations were even lower for Sarah Palin in the 2008 vice-presidential debate, which meant that the pundits immediately declared that she had done very well. But the story changed the next day when people who were not grading on a curve weighed in. They saw Palin and they judged her unprepared to be Commander in Chief in the event that tragedy should befall a President McCain. Running at the top of the ticket, you have a higher bar to clear.

As you are now in your eighth decade of existence on this planet, with only a few hours until the debate, it's undoubtedly too late to advise you to read up on current events, history, science, economics, and all of the other stuff that the leader of a great country ought to know about. Thus, actually talking knowledgeably is out of the question for you. Instead, I imagine that you will try to stall with superlative word salad ("terrific", "huge", "the best") as much as possible. In addition, your handlers have probably given you some lines to memorize. You now face a dilemma. Even if you can remember your prepackaged lines, you will be sorely tempted to ad lib because of that "very good brain" of yours. You should resist the temptation. Your goal for this debate is to be boring. Stick to word salad and the memorized lines, even at the risk of looking like a robotic Marco Rubio unmasked by Chris Christie. People who plan to vote for you because they find your unique brand of narcissism, faux-populism, and racism appealing won't fault you for being boring for one night, but the swing voters who are trying to figure out whether you are too much of a buffoon and a racist to be trusted with the nuclear codes will prefer boring to Trumptastic.

To the candidates: You're welcome.

To everyone else: Bonus points for the reader who comes up with the best drinking game to play while watching the debate. I'll get us started with a default drinking game. Here are the rules:

Drink each time . . .

Trump says "crooked", "we don't win anymore", "make America great again", or "people tell me."

Clinton says "steady", "experience", "children," or "Obama."

Bottoms up!