Here’s how MSNBC previewed tonight’s debate for viewers:
To the extent that you are inclined to cover a presidential election like a basketball game, in which emotions are running high and fans of both sides have a lot of strong feelings but the objective stakes for the country are minimal, this seems about right to me. Trump really does need to try to reduce basic doubts about his fundamental fitness for office, and Clinton really does need to do more to be someone whom people who don’t like Trump can feel excited and positive about.
But it’s worth covering the presidential election not just as a reality show but as a process through which an individual will be selected to do an important job.
- Is it actually important whether the president of the United States makes funny jokes? Are the downside risks of an unfunny president large or small? I think if you consider it for a minute, the answer is that this pretty clearly does not matter.
- Granting that Clinton has not done a stellar job of informing the mass public about what she would like to do as president, doesn’t it matter that an interested citizen can easily access detailed information about her plans, whereas Trump needs to "fill in gaps" not about public knowledge of his proposals but their basic existence? There is, for example, a $1 trillion ambiguity in his tax plan.
- Even if Trump does manage to "show humility" during a 90-minute live television broadcast, would a reasonable person familiar with his past 40 years in the public eye reach the conclusion that he is a humble person with a sense of his own limits and shortcomings? I’m going with no on this. The fact that we’re in late September and we’re still talking about how he should "stop lying" and have policy proposals is a big tell here.
Politics as horse race and politics as substance are both interesting stories, but at the end of the day the horse race is interesting primarily because the substance is important.
Viewed as merely a competition, political competition is (or at least traditionally has been) on the dull side, and you’d be better off watching a replacement-level TV show than a news broadcast. But years of front-loading the idea that campaigns are basically a form of not-so-entertaining reality television has brought forward a major party nominee who, whatever else you want to say about him, was a very successful reality TV host.
But the "winner" of this show will sit in the Oval Office and make decisions with enormous impacts on the lives of hundreds of millions of people. We’re wondering if one contestant can communicate her policy ideas more clearly and with more jokes, and we’re wondering if the other contestant can chill out on the constant lying and bother to formulate any ideas at all.