Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Moderator's role will be crucial in Trump v. Clinton bout


LENOX >> They're calling it the Super Bowl of politics. The first presidential debate on Monday night is expected to draw as many as 100 million viewers and listeners. The Trump-Clinton Follies will dominate TV, radio and the internet. There will be viewing parties in sports bars and private homes.

Town Hall meetings here in the Berkshires should grind to a halt in time for the lollapalooza event of the dreadfully long campaign season. (Lenox zoning board, I'm looking at you, make a decision on the Miraval resort proposal for Cranwell early, or put it off yet again.)

Lively conversations have broken out everywhere on whether this debate — and two more next month — will "move the needle" as polls continue to depict a photo-finish, with several respected surveys giving Donald J. Trump a 50-50 chance of victory in the popular vote.

Some commentators are dubious about the debates, believing that Trump's core supporters are dug in and nothing their adored candidate could do or say would change their minds.

But there could be a significant impact on a small group of undecideds as well as the 12 percent of voters backing minority party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, obviously believing it makes no difference which unpopular major candidate wins.

If Clinton turns in a superior performance, emphasizing her strong qualifications, experience and policies aimed at the 95 percent who have not reaped the full benefits of the economic recovery, she could galvanize her mostly lukewarm supporters and perhaps persuade some on-the-fence Republicans. She might even motivate some Johnson and Stein backers not to waste their vote.

If Trump wins the presidency, it will be because Clinton was unable to excite her base — the Democratic coalition of women and minorities, as well as the well-educated, regardless of party affiliation. Closing the yawning enthusiasm gap is her big challenge, especially among younger voters, and the debates offer a game-changing opportunity if she is able to seize it.

As the dangerously smart Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly, a Trump admirer, acknowledged this past week on Jimmy Kimmel's ABC late-night show, while Trump won the Republican primary debates by brutalizing his opponents, that's not the prescription for Monday night.

"If he starts that with Hillary Clinton, 'you're crooked. Crooked Hillary,' he'll lose. That'll be the end of him. On the other side, Hillary Clinton is calling him all kinds of names. Misogynist. Racist. If she starts that, she'll lose."

"If she's smart on Monday, she'll get right into policy, and then look at him and go 'Do you know what I'm talking about?' Because maybe he won't," O'Reilly said.

It's true that Clinton brings significant baggage to the fray, as does her totally unqualified, temperamentally unfit opponent whose supposed mega-success in the business world is a sham, built on a house of cards. No wonder he won't release his tax returns.

But it's a mistake to equate their negatives. Clinton's carry-on baggage would fit into the overhead compartment of her campaign aircraft, while her rival's steamer trunks would require a cargo plane right behind the Trump Jet.

To put it another way, while Clinton shades the truth on some issues, Trump is a pathological liar about nearly everything.

For example, Trump has blasted the moderators of the upcoming debates, claiming the events are "rigged" against him. Undoubtedly, he would prefer referees who would function as timekeepers, or ideally no moderator at all, just the two candidates, mano a mano.

Trump's lie du jour last Monday was labelling Lester Holt, the NBC News anchor and moderator of Monday's debate, as a Democrat. In fact, as New York state voting records show, Holt has been a registered Republican since 2003. So, Trump has been a Republican for far less time than Holt.

Depicted by some as mild-mannered and unlikely to pose hard-hitting questions or call out the candidates if they lie, Holt's interviews with government leaders and politicians in his role as anchor of NBC Nightly News and of last summer's national conventions show that he does pitch hardball and curveball questions, but in a gentlemanly fashion.

Following the Matt Lauer debacle on NBC's "Commander in Chief" forum early this month when the "Today" host badgered and interrupted Clinton relentlessly and gave Trump pass after pass, especially on his early support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Holt is under close scrutiny and intense pressure.

Debate moderators have to be more than detached timekeepers.

"You have to pick your moments; you can't challenge on everything. You also have to be present. I don't think you can abdicate your role as a truth seeker and a journalist," said NPR media critic David Folkenflik on Friday.

"Journalists need to be able to help the ball go back and forth, to get a sense of these candidates, who they are, what direction they want to lead the country, and what the implications are of their policies," he said. "But I don't think they need to melt away into the backdrop either. I think they can play a vital and constructive role, and some of them are more willing to do that than others."

My prediction: Holt is willing.

Of course, everything rides on which candidate viewers can picture in the Oval Office with the overwhelming responsibilities of a commander in chief and national leader.

As President Obama has emphasized, and he can't repeat it often enough: "I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America."

He also described Clinton as a person who listens, keeps her cool and treats everybody with respect.

Point taken.

To contact Clarence Fanto: The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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