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A plea for sanity — and seriousness — in judging the debate

This isn’t a reality television show. It’s a job interview.

I spent the weekend trying to figure out how to start this piece — how to ground my sense that this presidential debate is beginning in a bad place — and then MSNBC put up this graphic:

This is the Donald Trump curve. Hillary Clinton needs to answer every question perfectly and make people laugh while she does it. Trump needs to stop lying and bragging so much. It defies parody. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

MSNBC is simply echoing the conventional wisdom. Clinton “faces higher expectations than Donald Trump when the two square off for the first debate on Long Island,” reports Politico. This is the conclusion of Politico’s “insiders poll,” which surveys a select group of political elites. The responses — Politico provides anonymity to participants in the survey — are darkly comic.

“To win the debate, all Trump really needs to do is meet expectations, keep his cool, and look presidential,” says one Republican.

A Democrat adds: “The question we are all waiting to have answered is: Can he be serious? Can he answer questions directly? How will he react (or overreact) when he is directly challenged? Can he control his temper?”

So here is where I think we are on the morning of the first presidential debate. For Hillary Clinton to win the debate, she needs to be perfect. For Donald Trump to win the debate, he needs to avoid embarrassing himself.

Do you see the problem?

This isn’t a reality television show. It’s a job interview.

What we’re seeing here isn’t the media’s bias toward Trump and against Clinton but its bias toward storytelling and narrativization.

The media has been covering the characters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for years now, and this debate represents a pivotal moment in their respective plots. As such, the way they’re being judged is from inside their own stories.

The main plot point of Donald Trump’s story is that he’s fundamentally unpresidential — he lies, he knows nothing about policy, he’s an absurd braggart. The drama of his story is in whether he can complete his hero’s journey by overcoming his baser instincts and acting like a completely different person.

The main plot point of Hillary Clinton’s story is that she’s just not likable enough — she’s overshadowed by her husband’s warm empathy, held back by her own caution, bedeviled by the lack of storytelling skills that come so naturally to other politicians. Her hero’s journey is about forging that connection with the audience: letting them see her as a full person, finding that sense of empathy that has so eluded her in national politics.

This is all very interesting stuff, and it’s fun to watch these storylines unfold. But that’s not what we’re here to do tonight.

The presidential debate isn’t the penultimate episode of the fun reality television series American Presidential Election. It’s a job interview. And what matters in a job interview isn’t whether the candidate shows personal growth but whether he or she is the best candidate for the position.

And we need to find the best candidate. I covered the White House as a new administration tried to manage a financial crisis and two wars, not to mention the daily work of running the country. Here’s what I learned: Being president is a really, really, really hard job. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, obviously, but take it seriously enough and it changes how you think about elections — it changes the risks you’re willing to take and the kinds of people you think can perform. Even the best among us will fall short regularly. But the worst among us could do serious, terrible damage.

A list of the qualities a president needs to be successful would overwhelm this piece. But many of them are obvious. This is a position that demands dutifulness, rigor, reliability, compassion, brilliance, and an almost endless capacity to absorb hard work and personal criticism. There is nothing partisan in this description. It fit Mitt Romney, for instance. But does it sound like Donald Trump to you? If it does, then great — vote for him. If it doesn’t, then that’s the bar Trump needs to clear tonight and for the rest of the election.

We can’t judge Trump on a curve because the job won’t, either. If President Trump mismanages the economy, the unemployed won’t be comforted to know that he’s tweeting fewer insults at his enemies; if he blunders us into a war based on personal pique, the families of the dead and wounded will not be soothed to hear that he’s filled in the gaps in some of his policy proposals.

So here is my plea: Let’s not grade either candidate on a curve. Let’s not get caught up in either nominee’s storyline. The test here is not whether Trump can be better than he’s been. It’s whether he can be as good, as informed, as judicious, as we need him to be. The test is not whether Clinton can tell more jokes. It’s whether she’s the candidate better suited to be president of the United States of America.


Watch: How presidential debates are won and lost

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