Prime-time drama: Clinton and Trump have first joint forum this week — and it's as crucial as the debates

Wednesday's national security forum with the presidential candidates is more consequential than you might realize

By Gary Legum
Published September 6, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk/Jonathan Ernst/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk/Jonathan Ernst/Photo montage by Salon)

It is not a debate, but Wednesday will see the first joint appearance between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The two will appear in a one-hour prime-time forum where they will take questions from an audience on national security and military affairs. It airs on both NBC and MSNBC. Adjust the color balance for pumpkins on your TV accordingly.

There are a couple of reasons why this forum — and any others this fall — could be more consequential and telling about the candidates’ temperaments and fitness for office than the three debates that will take place from the end of September to mid-October.

Partly this is a function of the format. A debate, at least as conducted in the heat of a presidential election, is a freewheeling affair when the candidates routinely violate time limits on their answers, interrupt one another and the moderators and look for opportunities to attack. Their rote, memorized responses are canned and scripted to be spit out in less than 90 seconds or maybe two minutes at most. By necessity, they are almost content-free.

The drama revolves around whether a moderator or an opponent can throw a candidate off his or her game, make the person lash out or stumble. Then the story line of the debate becomes about the gaffe or the moment when one candidate “landed a punch” on the other and made him or her look unprepared or ridiculous.

The debates, as practiced in this country, have little to do with informing the public of a position on issues or a genuine vision of government and the nation. They are campaign ads in two-minute sound bites.

That’s why, at least in the primaries, they were perfect for Donald Trump, the anti-candidate who does not put too much thought into preparing for events. He could dominate by playing off the crowd and the other candidates sharing the stage with him. If he attacked the moderator — see his hits on Fox News' Megyn Kelly during the first debate in August of last year — it got him attention and press for days.

By contrast, forums are a little more intense and intimate. A well-prepared moderator can have an easier time pinning down a candidate and following up on the audience's questions. It requires a candidate to move around the stage, maintain eye contact with questioners and show empathy and relatability to members of the audience. This is not exactly Trump’s strong suit.

Such a format should give Clinton an edge over Trump. She is practiced at this sort of campaigning, having made it a point over the last year and a half to hold town halls and meet with potential voters in smaller, intimate situations that, by nature, require a lot of listening on the part of the candidate.

Trump, by contrast, has eschewed that kind of traditional retail campaigning. Most if not all his events have involved his flying into a location, giving a speech in front of an adoring crowd and boarding his plane to fly out. Aside from meetings with the survivors of victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants — the “Angel Moms” he brought onstage during his immigration policy speech in Phoenix last Wednesday — this is not an area with which he has experience at all.

Forums are also not events that give themselves over to bombast, which is in Trump’s wheelhouse. Without a friendly questioner like Fox News' Sean Hannity to cover for him, Trump's usual rambling, stream-of-consciousness rants peppered with name-calling are likely to come off as the blustering of a blowhard. He’ll be exposed, all while giving off-topic answers about Clinton and email servers that have nothing to do with the questions at hand.

The X factor is the forum’s host. NBC's Matt Lauer is not known as a tough interviewer. Nor is he a specialist in national security questions. He is unlikely, even with good preparation, to be able to follow up on tough questions that either candidate avoids answering with blizzards of gibberish.

Given the lack of time limits and back-and-forth between competitors at a debate, this forum should be a much better showcase for the 10 people left in America who haven’t yet overdosed on this campaign and who are still torn about their votes. It will lack the spectacle of all three debates. Which is why we should tune in. Maybe if there are solid ratings, we can get more forums in future elections.

Gary Legum

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