Q: How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?
A: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.
That riddle, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, comes to mind when I think of the upcoming series of “debates” between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The two are scheduled to lock horns for the first time on September 26 at Hempstead, New York’s Hofstra University.
The idea of a “debate” presupposes reasoned arguments for and against specific propositions. The Hofstra event and its followups won’t be debates. They’ll be combination beauty contests, “professional wrestling” matches, and campaign commercials.
The only proposition either candidate will support will be “I should be president.”
The closest thing to an argument either one will put forward will be “because I am not the other person on this stage.”
At the end of the evening, the audience will have no more clue what, other than personal style, differentiates one candidate from the other than we did at the beginning — for the perfectly good reason that the answer is pretty much nothing.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The Commission on Presidential Debates could invite several candidates — perhaps all five who appear on state ballots adding up to more than the 270 electoral votes required to win the election outright (Trump, Clinton, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, Green Party nominee Jill Stein, and Constitution Party nominee Darrell Castle).
Instead we’ll only be shown the two establishment-approved candidates. Speaking if which, the Federal Elections Commission really should take notice that due to those exclusionary criteria, the events constitute illegally large (by several orders of magnitude) in-kind campaign contributions to the Clinton and Trump campaigns.
The moderator, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, could put the candidates on the spot with detailed policy questions on important issues, testing their knowledge, probing their competence, allowing them to distinguish themselves one from the other.
Instead, if history is any guide, the questions and answers will make the interview round of Mr. Trump’s old stomping ground, the Miss Universe pageant, look like a doctoral thesis defense in nuclear physics. Fortunately this “debate” format skips the swimsuit and evening gown competitions.
This cycle’s presidential “debates” will almost certainly put off enough heat to measurably impact global warming statistics, while shedding little if any light at all on the applicants for the most powerful position in the world.