Debate coach Ed Lee: People expect a level of seriousness when it comes to presidential debates
Lee on Trump: What if the bombastic candidate focused on issues, not personalities?
Editor’s Note: Ed Lee is the senior director of debate in the Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education at Emory University, where he has been a debate coach since 2004 and has received national awards for his work. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
In Donald Trump’s favorite movie, “Citizen Kane,” Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper owner with political ambitions, leads in the polls during a race to determine New York’s next governor until scandal unceremoniously cuts short his candidacy.
Numerous political commentators predict a similar political demise for Trump. While no one suggests that Trump will fall victim to a sordid extramarital affair like Kane, many predict that Trump’s hubris, bravado and disdain for civility will ultimately undermine his political ambitions. Despite his current front-runner status in the Republican contest, some suggest that his inability to act presidential at the first debate, in Cleveland on Thursday, will begin Trump’s swift and precipitous decline.
No one can deny that Trump’s current strategy has produced magnificent results.
With the Republican field the largest in history, Trump looks to walk onto the Quicken Loans Arena stage ahead of the pack. The most recent Quinnipiac University poll finds Trump garnering 20% of voter support and a significant 7% lead over his closest rival, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Muhammad Ali once professed that “it is hard to be humble when you are as great as I am.” The current fantastic polling results for Trump in the run-up to the first Republican Party debate may make it difficult for him to approach the event with any sense of humility and propriety.
However, if he could find it within himself to demonstrate the high standards of decorum that the audience expects from a “real” presidential candidate, he could leave the stage as he entered – the definitive front-runner among 17 Republicans vying to be the next president of the United States.
In fact, Trump said on ABC this weekend that he won’t be “throwing punches” and “I’m not looking to attack.” But he also accused his rivals of being “all talk, no action.”
Trump should not forget that exigence, the audience’s expectation for what will be communicated and how it will be communicated, helps determine how people will interpret and respond to his presentation. Trump’s scorched-earth attacks on immigrants, military veterans and the rest of the field have largely succeeded because they fit within the narrative of character and crisis that sustains the attention of the networks and their audiences.
Presidential debates are different. The audience expects more. They want to be informed about solutions and not simply entertained.
Public debates have long been a revered part of American politics. The 1858 debate series between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas helped create a citizenry that demands informed and engaged public address by political leaders.
Many may ignore or dismiss Trump’s vitriol in an interview as mere reality TV entertainment, but most Americans would perceive his firebrand ad hominems in the presidential debate as misplaced. Contemporary national political debates serve to separate the “real” and “viable” candidates from those jockeying to be political pundits after the primaries.
Trump’s ability to act presidential could determine whether we see him in the second debate on September 16 in Simi Valley, California. Acting presidential could also blunt what will undoubtedly be the primary mode of attack on him by the other candidates – emphasizing his hostile and acerbic communication style.
The debate presents a rare opportunity to simultaneously meet the public’s demand for substance and shock the audience by doing the unexpected. It is almost inconceivable that these two rhetorical strategies can be executed together, and yet Trump finds both available to him for the upcoming debate.
If news is truly about reporting on what is new and noteworthy, the most newsworthy thing Trump could do is to focus on issues and not people. He could put forth policies instead of propaganda.
The other candidates will likely not expect to debate with Trump about sound and cogent policy proposals, which will leave them awkwardly adjusting their debate strategy with little time to do so. Trump will monopolize the media coverage by doing what no one expects he is capable of doing – acting presidential.
No doubt Trump has thought about his similarities with “Citizen Kane’s” Charles Foster Kane. They are wealthy, mercurial figures who surprisingly find themselves front-runners in a major political campaign.
I hope, if only for the entertainment value of a viable Trump candidacy, that he also understands the similarities between his current situation and that of Icarus. Trump cannot use the August 6 debate as just another venue for his white-hot verbal assaults without them melting off his own wings and quickly plunging him into a sea of political irrelevance.