The debate must be more than sport


There never has been a political moment in our lifetimes quite like this. The nature of our problems, the candidates who seek to solve them, and the tenor of the campaign between them have stoked an anticipation for Monday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University that resembles that of a Super Bowl.

The nation hunkers down to watch, cleaved into warring tribes with increasingly little in common. Or, perhaps more correctly stated but profoundly sadder, we’re increasingly unwilling to admit we have anything in common. Our rhetoric has never been more heated, our disgust with our foes never more visceral.

We simmer in a stew of anger and frustration — fed up with corruption, distrustful of institutions, contemptuous of elitism, burned by broken promises, frayed by economic anxiety, and alienated by politicians who remain resolutely out of touch.

We’re not just watching a debate Monday night. We’re trying to decide who we want to lead the revolution this country wants. But we disagree about what that change would look like. We’re not sure how to get it. And some of us have deep doubts about whether either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump can produce it.

Some see Clinton as the consummate insider and exemplar of all our problems. Others see Trump as an imperfect avatar of our collective frustration, an inside player himself whose skill at the game enriched him. Many believe he is a wrecking ball, but can he fix what he breaks? The vast majority of Americans find one of the two distasteful. Many object to both.

So some voters will watch hoping that the candidate they despise crashes and burns. Some will be eager to hear dueling insults and name-calling. Some will be waiting for a moment that sears itself in the national memory; what play will make the highlight reel?

All of us ought to expect, and demand, more. We ought to want thoughtful answers to questions, not evasions. We ought to want specific policies to fix serious problems, not platitudes about the importance of fixing them. And we ought to want fact, not fiction.

So, for both Clinton and Trump: We know you want to create jobs; how would you do that? How will you be honest and straightforward when your history suggests you will not? How would you describe the racial fault lines in this country and how would you mend them? What will you do about tax reform, terrorism, climate change, health care and the cost of college? And will somebody please — PLEASE — address the difference between a refugee, an immigrant, and someone here illegally — and explain why that’s important for policy?

Unfortunately, issues haven’t mattered that much in this campaign. Most voters made up their minds about these candidates long ago, and nothing is going to change them. But while polls are notoriously fickle and frequently disagree with one another, they consistently show that as many as 10 percent of voters have yet to make up their minds.

Here’s hoping that Clinton and Trump give them something serious to talk about and think about, something that leads them to vote for someone and not against someone.

That would be a moment worth remembering.— The editorial board

 

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