2016 Elections

The Art of the Debate: Stick With Policy

What questions to ask in the first face-off between the presidential candidates.

The setting: Hofstra University.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Getty Images

A plea to the presidential debate moderators: Save your questions about scandals -- Donald Trump’s various business and personal financial messes and Hillary Clinton's e-mails --  for another forum.

Instead, use the limited time available tonight to ask about public policy, and how the candidates would go about doing the job of president. That is, the focus should be on representation -- the promises Clinton and Trump are making to voters -- rather than on the competition. 1

Yes, candidates make pledges all the time, but they usually do so only on those policies they believe are in their best interests to talk about. And they aren't usually pressed for details. Debates can push the candidates for more depth on positions they have taken on the economy, trade, immigration, health care and terrorism. Since both Clinton and Trump have plans for child care and parental leave (in Trump's case, just maternal leave), it would be natural to get them to contrast their approaches and explain how they will be financed.

Moderators can also bring up topics that have been slighted in the campaign, such as climate change, which, as Plum Line's Greg Sargent argues, is going to be central to the next presidency.

This is a tricky area for moderators. Do they trust their own experience and judgment to determine which topics are most important? Or should they consult outside experts? Or rely on polls of what voters want asked? 

On balance, I'd prefer that the moderators give the greatest weight to the topics the candidates have considered most important. 

I’ll also renew my plea for questions about how the candidates intend to handle the job of "presidenting." Do they plan to make any changes in how the White House functions? Where do they intend to turn for advisers and executive-branch personnel? 

I'm not saying that past scandals aren't important. They are. But save the questions about them for one-on-one interviews and press conferences, where it's more appropriate for journalists to confront the candidates. Here, where the candidates confront each other, let's push them to keep the focus on policy and how they intend to act in office.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Political scientists have generally found little evidence that debates affect vote choice, although it's always possible that this time will be different

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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