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In our opinion: The questions Chris Wallace should ask during the debate

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President Donald Trump talks to reporters after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

AP

Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will square off in the first presidential debate of the fall campaign. Chris Wallace from Fox News will be the lone moderator of the debate. Many television networks, pundits and politicos are hoping for big clashes, fireworks and high-stakes drama. A civil conversation, beyond talking-points, would be bad for ratings but excellent for the nation. 

The debate will take place at Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. The format for the first showdown calls for six 15-minute segments — with each segment dedicated to a particular topic. The topics were released to the campaigns and the public last week. The six areas are: 

The Trump and Biden records

The Supreme Court

COVID-19

The economy

Race and violence in our cities

The integrity of the election 

The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates explained that topics were “announced in advance in order to encourage deep discussion of the leading issues facing the country.” 

Deep discussion and elevated dialogue would be most welcome. 

Each of the debate issues is vital to the future of the nation. Both candidates have long records, mountains of position papers, scores of sound-bites and bags full of comeback-zingers for each issue. That is worrisome. 

If all we hear Tuesday evening is the regurgitation of what have already seen, heard and read from the candidates, this will have been an exercise in futility. There is a real possibility that after 90 minutes viewers will have learned little and become even more exhausted. 

Mr. Wallace is going to have to use every strategy and tactic available as the moderator to compel candidates to provide real insight and important information to voters. Throughout his career Wallace has shown a willingness to push back on “fluff” or “filibuster-style” answers from politicians across the spectrum. He is also has an ability to ask penetrating follow-up questions. His skill will be tested Tuesday night. 

Sadly, debates have devolved into pre-produced, over-rehearsed one-liners and pithy zingers primarily designed for social media moments and fundraising. At one time in America’s history debates were actually the place where ideas, principles and policies took center stage and the politicians were simply the means of engaging people in the process.

This isn’t likely to be the year when meaningful debates and civil dialogue return to political campaigns. We wish it were. 

A Lincoln-Douglas style debate where candidates simply have time to express themselves beyond sound-bites would be revealing. A real conversation would be refreshing. 

The nation could use more of the kind of conversation suggested by two-time presidential candidate and former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson:

“Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions. ... What counts now is not just what we are against, but what we are for. Who leads us is less important than what leads us — what convictions, what courage, what faith …” 

Neither of these candidates has had to have a job interview in decades. They should treat the debate as the ultimate interview and come in with a sense of humility. They should also be prepared to clearly articulate their vision of America’s future. That vision should be short on spin and heavy on specifics. The American people should act like the interviewing boss and ask tough questions while demanding the specifics in the answers. 

It is vital for citizens to be engaged and informed in this important election cycle. Debates are part of that process. The candidates should provide a compelling reason to watch the debate — and not in the “Come see the fireworks and trainwreck” kind of way. Citizens have to expect more, not less, from debates. 

Voters should also remember “Who leads us is less important than what leads us.”