Don't expect a Lincoln-Douglas debate, but it could teach us a lot

Clinton, Trump prepare to square off at first debate
Clinton, Trump prepare to square off at first debate

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Clinton, Trump prepare to square off at first debate 01:42

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Given the anger between the Trump and Clinton camps, Monday night's debate could easily get nasty
  • The Clinton campaign invited Trump critic, billionaire Mark Cuban, to the debate leading Trump to tweet he might invite Gennifer Flowers, who had an affair with Bill Clinton
  • Trump needs to show more steadiness, and Clinton more emotion, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Presidential debates rightly stir up a lot of grief. Over the years, debates have not exactly produced the most enlightening discussion of public policy.

We have been inundated with verbal and visual gaffes, people cheering on their candidate as they lash into the other person's character, and pundits evaluating who offers the best one-line "zinger" that will stick in the public imagination.
50 years of presidential debate moments
50 years of presidential debate moments

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    50 years of presidential debate moments

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50 years of presidential debate moments 02:06
This is not exactly the stuff of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
    As former CBS Anchor Dan Rather said in 1988, "These things have developed over the years into what some people believe can more accurately be described as a joint campaign appearance or an orchestrated news conference."
    Things have only gotten worse since. After the carnival that we witnessed during the Republican primary debates, many Americans may be bracing themselves for the very worst that these televised events have to offer.
    In the minds of some critics, the Republican primary debates really lowered the bar in terms of the quality of these exchanges. In particular, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio reached a new low when they debated the size of their body parts.
    Given how much anger exists between the Trump and Clinton camps, the debate on Monday night could easily get nasty. The Clinton campaign invited Trump critic and billionaire Mark Cuban to attend the debate and Trump tweeted that in response, he might invite Gennifer Flowers, who had an affair with Bill Clinton.
    Yet even if the content of the debate will not be satisfying to many voters, there is still a lot to learn from this and the other two presidential debates, information that will be useful when making a decision about what to do come November. With polls showing that the race is virtually tied, this face-off has the potential to make a difference.
    The temperament of the candidates is something that usually does come through in the debates. The essential character of the person on the stage is very difficult to mask even when the most polished campaign professionals are working the room. The television cameras don't allow candidates to hide who they are from the public.
    Democrats remember how Vice President Al Gore struggled to shed the perception that he was arrogant and aloof in 2000 no matter how many times he told us about his "lock box," while President George H.W. Bush had no luck conveying in 1992 the kind of empathy and concern with middle class voters that came through so clearly in his opponent, Bill Clinton.
    Temperament is a big issue for both of the current candidates, but in different ways. Trump's erratic and vitriolic behavior has continued to be a major problem, particularly for many Republicans who are uncertain if he could handle the job of Commander-in-Chief. Trump "lacks the temperament to be President," warned 50 prominent national security officials, mostly Republicans, who came out against his candidacy. These concerns have been registered in public polls as well. Although concerns about Trump's competence are somewhat more muted than in the middle of the summer, only 43 percent of the public believe that he is qualified for the job and only 41 percent say he has enough knowledge of international affairs (white men respond much more favorably to both of these questions).
    When he is not reading from the teleprompter, the explosive side of the Republican nominee often becomes very clear. During these debates Trump will need to provide assurances to voters, in the way that he handles questions and in the way that he interacts with Hillary Clinton, that he can actually be presidential, or it will be difficult for him to gain support beyond his base. If he stumbles badly, losing his temper or descending into schoolyard insults, he will see his gains in the polls come to a halt.
    Clinton faces a different problem. If Trump needs to show some kind of steadiness, she has to use these debates to show more emotion. Clinton has continued to suffer because many voters see her as nothing more than a political machine.
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    Democrats are united in opposing Trump, but what is less evident is whether there is enough passion out there to bring huge numbers of them to the polls. This will be critical as the battleground state polls tighten. The debates, which will be viewed by huge audiences, give Clinton a chance to show Americans who she is as a person, not just a policymaker.
    What the candidates say about the details of public policy will matter to some extent, particularly for Trump. What does he know about the different foreign policy hot spots? What does he plan to do on specific domestic policies? While there is no question even among her opponents that Clinton knows a great deal about public policy, there are very serious questions about whether Trump has a basic mastery of domestic and foreign policy that is necessary to handle the job. This came up, for instance, when he didn't know what the nuclear triad was.
    Trump, who admits that reading is not his thing and that he suffers from a short attention span, will need to provide some comfort to Republicans on the fence that he knows his stuff. These are debates where he won't be able to afford too many mistakes, and where a strategy of constantly avoiding the questions won't work in his interest. This will be his opportunity to demonstrate that he is on top of the major questions facing the nation.
    For Clinton, the challenge will be to connect the details to the message. The debates, which come at a critical moment when the polls have significantly tightened, gives her a big opportunity to demonstrate that she has a vision—that the expertise, that the data, that the political experience all add up so something bigger. Democrats are looking to be energized by something beyond hating Trump. This is her chance to connect the dots.
    Even if there are many reasons to be skeptical about the quality of the conversation that will take place during the debates, there is a lot that we can learn about the candidates and the choice facing America as these 90 minutes unfold Monday evening.