It’s Not Debatable: Tonight Will Be This Presidential Campaign’s Moment Of Truth


Tonight at 9 p.m., the nation will gather together – perhaps 100 million strong. And we’ll do it for something that matters even more, if you can believe it, than the Super Bowl, which is the other time we come together in such numbers. In fact, we’ll gather three times, this being the first of three presidential candidates’ debates.

For weeks now, the flak aimed at the presidential debates has been intense: They won’t be probing enough, they will be full of Donald Trump’s insults or Hillary Clinton’s sleep-inducing wonkiness. The moderators will fail to fact-check – or they will be obnoxiously intrusive if they do.

But in the long run, we can’t do without these quadrennial spectator events. It goes without saying that the debates provide something distinctive: the candidates side by side, dealing with substantial issues, and for a significant amount of time. One way or the other, we get a bead on who they really are.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, calls debates “the single most valuable institutional form of communication” in presidential campaigns – more than speeches, news stories or ads. (She has led efforts to improve them, including the intriguing recommendation of a “chess clock” that would count down the minutes allotted to each candidate; the debate producers have an informal version of this behind the scenes.)

Debates are worthwhile even for those who have made up their minds because “the electorate can’t say, ‘I didn’t know that,’ ” Jamieson said. “We will have common evidence of who these candidates are.” And the debates “tie the campaigns to governance uniquely,” providing a look at the issues as well as the candidates’ temperaments and their habits of mind.

Better yet, they sometimes provide telling, even make-or-break, moments: Ronald Reagan’s disarming deflection of worries about his age; Michael Dukakis’ flatline response to a hypothetical question about his wife being murdered; Barack Obama’s put-down in a 2008 primary debate (“You’re likable enough, Hillary”).

Of course, it’s the undecided voters – a mysterious group, to be sure – who the debates may serve best.

“For that 10 percent or so who have reserved judgment, one would hope they would say, ‘This is my debate,’ ” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.

In fact, the debates “belong to the public,” Rosenstiel said, even going so far as to use the word “precious” to describe them.

Rosenstiel thinks Lester Holt is a good choice for the much-discussed moderator’s job in the first debate, to be held at Hofstra University on Long Island. He’s the right combination of tough-minded and low-key. More a workhorse than a show horse, he’s unlikely to make himself the focus of attention, but – I hope – he’ll be strong enough to maintain control.

I doubt that he’ll let any obvious whoppers go by unnoted, as his NBC colleague Matt Lauer did a few weeks ago during his network’s Commander-in-Chief Forum.

“Holt is the first African-American solo nightly news anchor in a generation and is someone who assumed the anchor chair amid controversy,” Rosenstiel said. (Holt took over last year after Brian Williams fell from grace for misrepresenting his coverage of the Iraq War.)

So, Holt has been through a lot – “and he’s done it by a just-the-facts kind of journalism,” Rosenstiel said. “His whole M.O. is low drama, high facts, small affect.”

And although Donald Trump recently complained that Holt is a Democrat – part of why the debates will be, in one of his favorite expressions, “rigged” – that’s not true; Holt is a registered Republican.

Janet Brown, executive director of the Presidential Commission on Debates, told me that candidates don’t get to say who the moderators are, despite what many observers believe: “They don’t pick them. They don’t approve them.”

The commission looks for three qualities, she said: A journalist who’s well versed on the candidates and issues; one with substantial experience in live, hard-news television; and one who understands that “the role is to be a facilitator, not a participant.”

The moderator, in short, is not on the ballot. But that doesn’t mean Holt can’t keep order and push for truth; especially given this fact-challenged campaign, he absolutely must.

As for Trump’s complaints about Holt or the others, that’s pure manipulation, a form of either lowering expectations so that a loss might look like a win, or a way to try to influence how tough the moderators will be. (“Working the refs” has become the go-to phrase, and it’s apt.)

Citizens ought to be skeptical of that kind of talk. “It’s disingenuous,” Rosenstiel said. And moderators, of course, should ignore it altogether.

Given the high stakes, and the personalities in play, Monday night is sure to be thoroughly critiqued – both afterward and, in this multi-screen age, right while it’s happening. (Beware, though: Jamieson cites clear evidence that you’ll learn less if you’re distracted by pundits’ tweets or your sister’s texts.)

In the end, this debate won’t be perfect. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Margaret Sullivan