The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With debates looming, progressives fret about lowered expectations for Trump

Bill Moyers (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Time)
Placeholder while article actions load

Two progressive critics of the mainstream media have joined in on a quadrennial tradition: Working the refs ahead of the presidential debates, out of concern that loose questions or low expectations will benefit the Republican nominee.

In a Huffington Post column titled "There's No Debate" (elsewhere on the site, it's titled "Scrap the Televised Debates"), journalist Bill Moyers argues that the format and moderators of the upcoming debates — the first is Sept. 26 -- "threaten an effect on democracy more like Leopold and Loeb than Lincoln and Douglas." Citing an NBC "Commander-in-Chief Forum," where Hillary Clinton faced questions on her email server while Donald Trump was allowed to wax about leadership, Moyers frets that moderators Lester Holt, Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace will avoid fact-checking Trump if he misleads.

"Why are we so complacent about the hijacking of our political process — that it has descended to this level where the two parties and the media giants pick as the only surrogates of the American people the minions of an oligarchic media riddled with cronyism and conflicts of interest?" Moyers asks.

Over at Media Matters, Eric Boehlert — author of a book that accused the mainstream media as acting as "lapdogs" for former president George W. Bush — collects coverage of Trump and Clinton to demonstrate that the Republican nominee is graded on a scale.

"What’s doubly concerning is that Trump already appears to be actively trying to intimidate the debate moderators in hopes they’ll go easy on him," Boehlert writes. "(According to network news executives, moderators Lester Holt from NBC and Fox’s Chris Wallace were chosen to “appease” Trump.) If Trump bullies the moderators and the press uses a weaker standard to grade him, then the debates are no longer fair campaign fights because a media-sanctioned ‘victory’ for Clinton will be that much harder to obtain."

There are two antecedents for this worry: the 1980 campaign and the 2000 campaign. The first looms in political science about presidential debates, as the only showdown between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan led to the largest surge for a candidate in debating history — an average of seven points toward Reagan. (After protracted negotiations and games of chicken, the debate was held just one week before the election.) This year, conservatives have harked back to 1980 as a case where the Democratic candidate worked to define the Republican as reckless and unpresidential, and the Republican brushed that aside with one good performance.

"I think if he walks through this and looks presidential he's got a great chance to win," Reagan's son Michael told Newsmax last week.

"The first debate represents Donald Trump's best shot at passing the commander-in-chief test," said Fox News's Howard Kurtz. "… Trump has the chance here to pull a Reagan."

In the public imagination, the 1980 debate is remembered for two moments: Reagan asking voters whether they felt "better off than you were four years ago," and Reagan responding to a Carter Medicare attack by saying "there you go again." (It's usually forgotten that Carter was making an accurate point that Reagan opposed the creation of Medicare.) But the larger problem was that Reagan, demonized in an era where campaign coverage was limited to nightly news, radio, and print reporters, came off as balanced and in full command of the facts. Pushed repeatedly on the more radical statements he'd given during the campaign, Reagan portrayed himself as moderate, for example when responding to an attack on his climate record:

As Governor of California, I took charge of passing the strictest air pollution laws in the United States — the strictest air quality law that has even been adopted in the United States. And we created an OSHA — an Occupational Safety and Health Agency — for the protection of employees before the Federal Government had one in place. And to this day, not one of its decisions or rulings has ever been challenged. So, I think some of those charges are missing the point. I am suggesting that there are literally thousands of unnecessary regulations that invade every facet of business, and indeed, very much of our personal lives, that are unnecessary; that Government can do without; that have added $130 billion to the cost of production in this country; and that are contributing their part to inflation. And I would like to see us a little more free, as we once were.

It's unclear whether Trump, a first-time candidate who has never debated a Democrat, would be able to soften his stances on positions that jar the electorate. The more immediate worry for progressives is a repeat of the 2000 debate — and its aftermath. In snap polls, Al Gore was seen to have prevailed over Bush in the first debate. But Bush's campaign shifted the narrative of the debate by focusing on several minor Gore exaggerations, such as saying he had "accompanied James Lee Witt," then the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, after fires in Texas. In fact, he had not accompanied Witt, and the gaffe led to stories with titles like "Al Gore Prone to Exaggeration."

Clinton, who according to polls is seen as even less trustworthy than Gore, may be even more vulnerable to quick spin about a bungled fact — something that has happened repeatedly when reporters' questions turned to the complicated scandal over her email server. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman captured some of the mounting worries in a column about 2000's worst coverage.

"Throughout the campaign most media coverage gave the impression that Mr. Bush was a bluff, straightforward guy, while portraying Al Gore — whose policy proposals added up, and whose critiques of the Bush plan were completely accurate — as slippery and dishonest," Krugman wrote. "Mr. Gore’s mendacity was supposedly demonstrated by trivial anecdotes, none significant, some of them simply false."