BY IAN PATTISON
Do you watch political debates? Does verbal combat among party leaders help you to decide who gets your vote? Research generally shows a majority of voters watch debates and a majority of those find debates helpful in forming their decision.
There are variables, of course. The same research finds that most voters who watch debates are largely committed, though as many as 20 per cent were found to have shifted their opinions based on debates.
This year, in the United States, there are other variables -- the character, fitness and mental capacity of the candidates.
The Republican leader, President Donald Trump, is an inveterate liar and is so good at it that many naively believe him, no matter how outrageous is the fiction.
In the 2016 debates with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump repeatedly said 'we're going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it,' 'we're going to keep all those Mexican rapists out of the country,' and 'we're going to make great trade deals.' None of it happened. Most major polls showed voters thought Clinton won all three of their debates. Yet Trump won the election because pollsters failed to account for millions of voters who support/worship Trump but weren’t built into polling models.
This year, Trump seems wingier than ever. He’s been a complete disaster as the man in charge of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. He constantly claims America is recovering while COVID-19 cases and deaths reach alarming levels. He openly hectors his own medical advisers while right-wing media outlets endanger the country with his and their own misinformation.
The Democratic nominee, Joe Biden appears to be suffering from some sort of cognitive decline. His courageous success in overcoming his stuttering is not the issue. Rather, his repeated errors in fact without correction suggest he has a recall problem.
He’s often forgotten the name of former president Barack Obama, though he rarely wastes an opportunity to invoke his popular former boss. Biden will forget the state he’s in, or, strangely, the name of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women created by . . . you know . . . you know the thing.”
In February, before his primary victory in South Carolina, Biden told a crowd, “My name’s Joe Biden. I’m a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate.” He continued, “Look me over. If you like what you see, help out. If not, vote for the other Biden.”
And then there is Biden’s strange predilection for smelling women’s and girls’ hair.
Trump likes to brag about acing a dementia test, which is hardly the sign of the genius that he claims to be. What would happen if Biden took the same test?
Physical tests are common among leading political figures with good results used to bolster their chances. During his 2016 campaign, Trump’s doctor declared he would be the “healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Later, it was learned the phrase had been dictated by Trump himself.
Dr. David Scheiner, who was Barack Obama's personal physician for 22 years before he became president, said he would like to see a neurocognitive assessment on Trump over concerns about the president’s speech pattern and behavior, saying it may be a sign of neurological damage.
Scheiner has said he has concerns about Biden’s history of irregular heartbeat, high cholesterol and two aneurysms, one of which almost killed him in 1988.
People close to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign have said they had real concerns about Biden, mainly about his ability to stay on message and his propensity for political gaffes, wrote Lisa Lerer in The New York Times this week.
“Given his age (77), Mr. Biden also needs to reassure voters that there’s someone who can take over if he can no longer serve as president -- a reason there aren’t many older women on (his vice-presidential running mate) list.” Biden was to have made his choice by now and announce it the week of Aug. 20.
It may seem unkind to attempt to diagnose Biden from afar, or Trump for that matter. But there is every reason in the United States this year to demand independent physical and mental health examinations of the two presidential contenders, and to worry about the results.
If Biden were to experience one of his mental lapses in a debate with Trump, it could prove fatal to a campaign in which he currently holds a commanding lead in most polls. Trump, meanwhile, is losing steam among Republicans over his litany of lies and confusing statements on a variety of subjects.
Trump said this week he’d like to move a scheduled October debate with Biden back to September, ahead of early voting in some states. Biden’s team has said it will abide by the schedule set by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Biden does have a couple of aces up his sleeve. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, "First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018.” Second, Biden "should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan commission . . . ."
Political Analyst Joe Lockhart would scrap presidential debates entirely this year. “We saw in the debates in 2016 Hillary Clinton showed a mastery of the issues, every point she made was more honest and bested Trump . . . . But Trump came out of the debates doing better I think because he just kept repeating the same old lies (see above).”
Lockhart added that "giving him (Trump) that national forum to continue to spout — get him to 21,000 or 22,000 lies — I think just isn't worth it for the Democrats or for Biden."
Here in Canada, the Leaders’ Debates Commission says debates play an essential role in democracy. “They give you a chance to see the character, temperament, and unscripted approaches of leaders . . . . Making an informed decision is part of a thriving democracy. But it’s difficult to make an informed decision; people are busy, and it’s hard to know what information to trust. A live debate is a trusted source of information, because it’s one of the very few times during an election campaign that you can hear directly from leaders – unedited and unfiltered.”
An unedited and unfiltered hour-long exchange between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be enlightening, not just for fact but to measure the ability of two marginally qualified characters to lead the most powerful and influential nation on Earth.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.