This coming Monday evening, many millions of people will eagerly turn on NBC or Facebook Live or Playstation VR or KitchenAid Mixer Smell-O-Rama to experience the first of three presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and a discarded citrus flavored condom granted sentience by a Klan sympathizing genie. Barring another Wikileaks revelation or unforeseen global event, these debates represent the last possible inflection points of the campaign season. Clinton can drive a stake through the Trump campaign’s rectum, or allow a racist, xenophobic con man with the mental function of a concussed caveman to convince educated suburban Republicans that he’s just another garden-variety conservative. The stakes could not be higher.
These circumstances grant the four debate moderators — NBC’s Lester Holt, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, and Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace — an out-sized degree of power. Their topic selections, forcefulness, willingness to engage, and ability to keep the candidates focused may very well help decide who occupies the White House next January. A moderator with the inclination to tip the scales in one direction could easily do so without the audience, the political press, or even the candidates themselves realizing it.
To be perfectly clear: Holt, Radditz, and Cooper are first-rate journalists who have time and again put truth-gathering before ideology. Anyone objectively reviewing their work over the years cannot plausibly assert a partisan bent. (Chris Wallace is Chris Wallace and why a right-wing propaganda network gets to moderate a debate is a question for another time). Few mainstream television journalists do a consistently better job than Holt, Raddatz, and Cooper — John Dickerson would have been my first choice but CBS found itself without a chair for some inexplicable reason — and there’s zero evidence that they’d shirk their professional responsibilities for an opportunity to meddle with American democracy.
As we know, though, the media that draws endless false equivalencies between Clinton and Trump is overwhelmingly liberal. It isn’t outside the realm of possibility to assume Holt, a black man, Raddatz, a woman, and Cooper, a gay man, may harbor a few concerns about a potential Trump presidency. So how could these moderators subtly craft an environment unfriendly to Trump without coming across as a partisan hack? It comes down to three things — topic selection, surgical fact checking, and an emphasis on specifics.
Selective Fact Checking
As much as I enjoy tossing the media into an industrial-sized dryer with a couple dozen cinder blocks and letting it run for five hours, the debate moderators are in a legitimately difficult position. Faced with a candidate whose mere presence would cause a polygraph machine to splatter its brains all over the wall, the traditional “sit back and let the two opponents duke it out” strategy isn’t viable. Trump will make a mockery of the proceedings, and Clinton can’t play fact checker because the public doesn’t trust her (despite that’s-not-a-moon-that’s-a-space-station amounts of evidence to the contrary). At the same time, the moderators can’t turn the 90 minutes into a Trump interrogation regardless of merit or they’ll risk opening themselves up to the dreaded bias allegations their bosses fear so much (nevermind that half the country will do this anyway).
Absent alternatives, the moderators need to take a page from Detective Alonzo Harris’ book and get surgical with this bitch. Don’t try to dispute all his nonsense. As CNN’s Jake Tapper said on last week’s Keepin It 1600, there’s a difference between spin and empirical fact. Politicians, even Trump, should be given wide latitude to frame their message however they choose. If a candidate wants to claim his tax plan is great for the middle class even though it only benefits the top one percent, fine. However, if that candidate then says the Tax Foundation determined his plan will reduce the deficit when it will actually add trillions, then it’s time to step in and correct the record.
Moderators should spend a week getting familiar with Trump’s biggest lies — being against the Iraq War, claiming Clinton started the birther conspiracy and he hadn’t mentioned it in five years — and be ready to pounce when he regurgitates them on national television. No, Mr. Trump, on this date at this time you very clearly said this, and read his own words back to him. When he throws a temper tantrum, ignore it and move on. Clinton is no shrinking violet. She’ll deploy truth-drone strikes as needed until Trump is a crater, but a few well-timed #wellactuallys from the esteemed moderator do far more damage in the long run.
/Mitt Romney nods solemnly while inserting the 842nd needle into his Candy Crowley doll
Crafty topic selection is probably the safest and easiest way for a moderator to sabotage Trump’s candidacy without getting a drop of plasma on their well-manicured hands. Moderators, not the two campaigns, choose the debate subjects (Holt selected Achieving Prosperity, Securing America, and America’s Direction for Monday’s event). Opting for ostensibly neutral themes — or even ones that seem to put Clinton in a bind like cybersecurity, foreign policy, or charitable giving — could prove poisonous to Trump if the moderators tailor their questions appropriately and leave Clinton plenty of room to counter.
For instance, a vaguely worded question on foreign policy baits Trump into unleashing Benghazi nonsense, which the moderator can choose to challenge or let slide. But it also gives Clinton the opportunity to discuss other foreign arenas like, say, his buddy Putin’s Russia, where Trump may or may not have business interests. Who knows? Can’t tell without his taxes. Want to discuss cybersecurity? OK, Clinton will gladly take the hit on the emails again — it’ll come up regardless — if it allows her to talk about how Trump asked his dictator pal to hack American servers. Trump is weak in so many areas that moderators don’t need to pull a reverse-Lauer and coddle Clinton. Simply introducing topics he’d rather avoid — Trump hasn’t conduced a non-Fox News interview in week and will likely avoid the mainstream press completely until Election Day — creates an environment where Clinton, a sharp and experienced debater, has the opportunity to attack Trump on issues where he’s vulnerable. Trump answers for his sins and the moderators leave with their centrist reputations intact.
Demand policy specifics
Trump is right-wing pipe dream in human form. Calling his policy proposals half-baked is an insult to runny cakes and mid-90s Dave Chappelle films. “I’m gonna cut taxes and build a big-ass wall” is less a policy proposal than it is something Breitbart commenters repeat into the mirror while the truck-stop hooker dutifully continues the dry handy. His ridiculous border security plan, his family leave plan that ironically fails to include men, his irresponsible tax plan that’s orders of magnitude worse than the typical “fuck everyone but the rich” schemes put forth by conservative candidates — they’re all ill-defined nonsense.
So far he’s been able to avoid serious scrutiny on this front. But a debate moderator can press candidates for details on their policy proposals far more directly than a reporter at a press conference. Mr. Trump, you’ve said you plan to build a wall along our Southern border and that Mexico will pay for it. Specifically, how will you get Mexico to foot the bill? Mr. Trump, you claim your tax plan will create 18 million jobs over the next decade. Please tell us, in detail, how this will happen? Every policy-centric question should include the word “specific” or the phrase “in detail.” When he dodges, ask again. Requesting information about how a presidential candidate plans to enact, pay for, or achieve his or her goals is not gotcha journalism. Clinton should receive the same treatment. It won’t turn off self-proclaimed independents or come across partisan, but it will expose Trump for the incompetent, ill-prepared dunce he is.