September 26, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, September 26, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Expected record draw for 1st presidential debate tonight driven by personality and political spectacle
Tonight just might be the biggest single political event in terms of viewership in American history. We’re looking at a projected viewership of 100 million Americans tonight for the first of three scheduled presidential debates in the 2016 campaign cycle. The first is to be held tonight on the campus of Hofstra University, and of course the two debaters will be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. And it is promised to be a night of great theater.
The numbers themselves tell us a great deal of the expectation. We’re looking at a projected 100 million Americans watching. That rivals virtually any event ever held on television before, and it is vastly larger than any audience for any previous American presidential debates. Looking back in history, the largest audience for a presidential debate before tonight was in 1980 when the debate featured Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter. The audience was about 80 million, but the really interesting footnote to that statistic is the fact that it was in the pre-cable era. Now we’re not only in the cable era, we’re passed it; we’re in the digital era and tonight’s debate is going to be available on multiple platforms and is going to be watched by people who not only may be gathered around television screens, but some at least are gathering in movie theaters where special presentations, parties they’re being called, are being held, and of course all kinds of Americans by the millions are likely to watch on their smart phones or other personal devices.Show Full Transcript
From the vantage point of 2016, many American voters simply assume that this kind of debate has been a staple of American presidential elections going back if not to the founding of the country then at least to the mid-19th century when you had the famous debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. But those debates were actually in 1858, and the office at stake was the United States Senate. Abraham Lincoln would lose that election, even though the debates became very famous. He would go on two years later to be elected President of the United States. One other footnote, many Americans romanticize those lengthy debates held over various days in various cities in Illinois between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Many people now lament that our debates are far more superficial with the candidates reduced to soundbites, and there’s something very legitimate in terms of that memory and that current concern. But we also need to note that we can romanticize the past, and even as there were moments when the brilliance of Abraham Lincoln and the rhetorical skill of Stephen Douglas were very much on display, in reality they both in retrospect took very cheap shots at one another and both of them made arguments that would later be hugely embarrassing.
Actually, the modern age of presidential debates—that is televised debates—goes back to 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran against Richard M. Nixon, and those debates were perhaps singularly amongst political debates of the presidential level decisive to some degree. In retrospect, it was clear that even though the radio audience listening to the debate was quite certain that Richard Nixon won, the age of television meant that those who were watching television came to a very different conclusion with John F. Kennedy looking cooler, looking younger, and just presenting himself in terms of the televisual in a way that was far superior to Richard Nixon, who after all saw television as his enemy. Another interesting footnote in terms of the 1960 debates is how many American intellectuals, politicians, historians, and others felt that the very idea of a televised presidential debate was a massive mistake; it would lead to the debasing of political discourse and candidates playing to the television screen. And we now know that is exactly what has happened. But we also need to note that those 1960 debates were understood to be so important to the process of democracy at that point with the advent of television that it’s now virtually unimaginable that we would have a presidential election in which there would not be debates. And the expectation is such that the sites for those debates are established by a presidential debate commission long before it is known who the respective nominees of the parties will be.
Interest in the 2016 debates is at such a fever pitch that the New York Times reports that 83% of likely voters have indicated that they will watch the debate tonight, and there’s no reason to believe that the audience will be anything short of what has been projected. But that’s in contrast to the fact that in recent presidential election cycles, as important as they have been, the interest in the debates has been considerably less. Another interesting footnote, if you go back to the 2008 presidential election—that’s election that pitted Senator John McCain against Senator Barack Obama—the presidential debates actually drew fewer viewers than the vice presidential debate, which was between Senator Joe Biden and then-Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. The vice presidential debate, it turned out, was more interesting to Americans than the presidential debate. What did that tell us in 2008? It tells us just how personality-centric American politics has become, and that points to the 2016 presidential election, and it points to tonight. The interest in terms of the debate tonight is almost assuredly driven by political spectacle and personality, not by a serious exchange on politics. As a matter of fact, even political scientists aren’t really sure at all what’s going to happen tonight in terms of an exchange of political ideas, policies, and positions. Instead just about everyone is looking to tonight as a rare moment of political theater. And the interest in the debate tonight is such that television analysts believe that the audience may actually come very close to the audience for the Super Bowl.
When the debate begins tonight, one of the huge questions is what effect could possibly come in terms of what happens tonight, and here there are a few very interesting angles. The first is this: the biggest event that could happen tonight would be a disaster for one of the two candidates. That is to say, the far more likely influential outcome, what could happen in terms of this kind of televised debate, is not so much that one candidate might win, but that either of the candidates might lose, might say something embarrassing, or act in such a way that it is perceived as being unpresidential and very damaging to the presidential campaign. And that sets up a disequilibrium in terms of the 2016 debates, because the presence of Donald Trump, given the way he handled the debates in the Republican nomination fight, means that presidential politics has never seen anyone who, let’s remember, was a reality television star long before he became a presidential candidate. The transformation of a presidential debate into what can be styled reality television is something Americans have never seen before. That may be in large part why so many Americans say they’re going to watch tonight.
Another very interesting point of analysis in this is that political scientists and those who follow elections so closely are indicating that there may be as few as 8 million Americans who will be in the audience tonight who have not made up their minds about how they’re going to vote. Observers of American elections point out that most voters actually vote virtually exactly as they say they will vote in July. We’re not in July, we’re not even in August, we’re headed into late September. It’s getting very late in the election cycle. The number of Americans whose minds are actually open as to being convinced to vote for one of the other candidates at this point is likely extremely small. This goes back to the previous point. The only big event that could develop tonight that might change that picture would be one of the candidates doing radical damage to his or her candidacy. Given the amount of talk and the amount of debate in the nomination process that both of these candidates have undertaken to date, it’s unlikely that at the policy level there’s going to be any huge surprise. If there’s a surprise, it’s probably going to be in political theater, not in policy.
In terms of experience in this kind of presidential debate, there is no question that Hillary Clinton holds a decided experience advantage. She’s been on the American political scene for 30 years now. But there’s also no doubt that when it comes to television, Donald Trump pulls a certain advantage, since he after all has been a reality television star and has spent a great deal of his time cultivating his own personality in terms of the televisual.
Another aspect of analysis in terms of the debates is the expectation gain. In this score, political analysts, those who are specially working on behalf of both of the two candidates, have a double game they try to play. They try to make very clear that their candidate is confident and secure in his or her debating skills, but they also want to lower expectations, because after all if the expectations for their candidate is unusually high, the candidate may risk an incredible embarrassment by not rising to that expected level of debate performance. That’s a very difficult balancing act for political consultants and the spin masters to try to accomplish.
Both of these candidates will be under incredible pressure tonight to show up as themselves, but also to show up as someone other than themselves. That’s to say that if they simply show up as they have been expected and experienced by the American people, they will not necessarily be understood to have performed well in the debate. On the other hand, if they show up as someone other than themselves, they’ll be accused of being artificial and false. That’s what happened in at least one of the debates to Vice President Al Gore when he was running against then Texas Governor George W. Bush in the 2000 election cycle.
The fact is that a significant percentage of those 100 million Americans expected to watch the debate tonight are probably tuning in to see the contrasting personalities of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Dick Meyer, writing for the Scripps Howard Washington Bureau, he’s their chief Washington correspondent, points out that in this sense,
“Clinton is from Mars and Trump is from Venus.”
That is to say, Clinton is filled with policy proposals and she’s likely to try to present herself as the very cool, calm, authoritative alternative to Donald Trump, who is likely to show up in the debate as he did in the Republican nomination debates as someone who adds the unexpected and then comes with shocking arguments and by his very physical presence, not to mention his words, injects shock into the campaign and into the debate.
The contrasting styles in the debate will be rooted in their contrasting personalities. But Dick Meyer’s also right that at least to date, no political party has ever nominated anyone quite like Donald Trump, for that matter, anyone nearly like Donald Trump. The candidates in previous presidential elections, and in particular in previous presidential debates, have generally followed a very similar kind of strategy. They have wanted to look presidential; they have of necessity looked presidential or they didn’t win a presidential election. Donald Trump has not sought to look presidential or to sound presidential. One of the big questions tonight is whether Donald Trump shows up as someone quite different than the Donald Trump who debated in the Republican nomination process.
Whenever a major political event like this takes place, my encouragement to Christians is that Christian parents in particular should watch these debates with their children, especially older children and teenagers. Make this an opportunity for the kind of analysis that Christians should offer and think about when observing something that is as important as a presidential debate, not to mention the first presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle. Also keep in mind that American presidential elections come only every four years, and that means that even if you felt you had this conversation before, this is a conversation you need to have over and over again. And of course it needs to be updated with the issues that are so upfront and central in the 2016 presidential election, and that means that personality is very much a part of this, as is personal character, as are the positions and arguments that will be exchanged by the candidates.
Even if you go back to 2008 and 2012, not to mention previous cycles back to 1960, the major topic of conversation has been the policy disagreements and the exchange of ideas in these debates. Tonight might be different. Tonight there might actually have to be an even deeper analysis of what’s going on when these two candidates show up, but there will be differences of policy inevitably. There will be plenty to talk about, and it is a wonderful opportunity, an opportunity not to be missed for Christians, especially for Christian parents and Christian families to talk to these issues together. In the same way, tomorrow morning on The Briefing we’re sure to have plenty to talk about, but right now we don’t yet know exactly what that will be. And that’s the point.
Globalism and realpolitik: Obama less optimistic in final address to UN than first
Next, keeping in mind the importance of the presidential election, we also have to remember we have a President of the United States, President Barack Obama. And last week he gave what amounts to his farewell address to the General Assembly of the United Nations meeting in New York. The President’s address, as far as I can tell, didn’t make the front page of any major American newspaper, but it should have—not so much because of what the President said, but because of what the President basically had to say when he spoke to the United Nations. There are big issues here.
Mark Landler, writing for the New York Times, said,
“It was President Obama’s last appearance on the marble dais of the United Nations General Assembly hall, and his farewell speech on Tuesday revealed a man whose eye was fixed as much on the next seven weeks of the American political campaign as on his place in history.”
What’s most interesting is what the President had to say. As the Times said, he addressed “the disruptive forces of globalism.”
And what we’re looking at is the fact that the President said,
“At this moment, we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration, or we can retreat into a world sharply divided and ultimately in conflict along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”
Why is this important? It’s because that is basically the very same message that was then in a more optimistic frame that President Obama brought in his very first address to the General Assembly of the United Nations. President Obama was elected as an internationalist, as a cosmopolitan, as someone who understood his identity as President of the United States and America’s identity as a nation in terms of a larger global picture. And he saw himself as an internationalist who would be a response to the eight years of presidential leadership of President George W. Bush, who acted more unilaterally, according to President Obama’s calculation. But President Obama, eight years virtually after being elected President of the United States, found himself before the United Nations in what can only be described as a very depressing frame of mind. Because eight years later, arguably, the world is in far worse shape than it was when President Obama took office after the election of 2008.
No fair-minded observer would blame the President for all the ills that have befallen the world since 2008 and for the spreading sense of global catastrophe and chaos that has come, but still he has been for the last eight years President of the United States, and there is a credible argument to be made even now, even by some of the President’s friends, that his strategy of internationalism has actually led to a further unraveling of the world picture rather than to the solving of the problems he declared himself determined to solve. You may remember that the President went to the American University in Cairo shortly after his inauguration and made statements that clearly were understood to apologize for America’s role in the world and in particular in the Middle East.
But since then we’ve had the bitter disappointment of the so-called Arab Spring and we have seen the picture in the Middle East go from bad to worse, sometimes even unimaginably worse, than could’ve been conceived in 2008 and 2009. As Mark Landler wrote for the Times,
“Mr. Obama’s words underscored the distance he has traveled from the hopeful leader who first addressed the General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2009. On that day, he pledged to forswear the unilateralism of his predecessor, George W. Bush, heralded a new era for the United States’ relationship with the Muslim world and promised to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
But as Landler says,
“On Tuesday, he dismissed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with a single sentence.”
But there were other huge issues framing the reality on the minds of those in the General Assembly who saw the President speak last week. One of these is the situation in Iran, where Iran is clearly continuing to move towards becoming a nuclear power, even as the President made an agreement with Iran, an international agreement, that was claimed would limit Iran from doing that very thing. The situation in Syria is perhaps the most depressing of all, and it is the situation for which the President almost assuredly deserves the most significant blame. He drew a famous line in the sand which he did not hold. He has refused to take action in Syria that might have protected so many of the people who have died and prevented the refugee crisis that is now threatening to overwhelm not only that region, but much of Europe as well. During that same eight-year period, Russia has appeared as a far more energetic and, it can be argued, effective actor on the world scene, and largely at America’s expense. Landler concluded his article with these words,
“As he exits the world stage, Mr. Obama sometimes seems less determined to change the world than to come to terms with it.”
The most important worldview dimension of all of this was made very clear by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal when they describe the president’s last address to the United Nations as,
“Obama’s Last Lecture.”
They pointed out that even as he gave his final address, he seems to be mostly frustrated with the fact that the world has not followed his own advice and direction in terms of its future. The last eight years have seen something of a significant American retreat from the world scene. The editors of the Wall Street Journal wrote,
“This is another expression of Mr. Obama’s now familiar progressive faith that the world’s bad guys are doomed to fail because, well, they are doomed to fail.”
That is contrasted with the foreign policy that has been for years called realpolitik, that is a realistic understanding of the fact that threats around the world can only be effectively blocked by force, not by influence, not to say moralistic preachments from the United States of America and its president. That takes us back to the New York Times article which makes very clear that the President who appeared before the United Nations General assembly last week was considerably less optimistic than the President who had appeared eight years before. And the reason for that is, from a Christian worldview perspective, it’s his view of the world itself that is flawed.
The President seems to believe that most of the world is filled with rational actors who are basically well intended and simply don’t have an adequate moral leadership to do the right thing. What the President seems to fail to understand, and this must be attributed to his own cosmopolitan worldview, is that there are millions of people around the world who are neither rational actors all the time and, more importantly, who do not mean to do well. Much like Woodrow Wilson whom the President clearly admires, President Obama has often fallen into professorial moralistic lectures to the world. But it turns out that the use of force is often the very thing that is necessary and the very thing that the President was unwilling to use.
Recently, The Atlantic monthly featured a massively long analysis written from the left, not from American conservatism, that critiques President Obama’s view of the world and his foreign policy. It’s really interesting to note that many of the people who championed President Obama’s non-interventionism in the world now blame him for the failure to intervene in Syria in particular. But when we go back to Mark Landler’s final comments in terms of that New York Times article, we read again,
“As he exits the world stage, Mr. Obama sometimes seems less determined to change the world than to come to terms with it.”
That’s a contrast to how the President entered office. He was very determined to change the world. But the world didn’t change as he had hoped. But the final part of this should bring the greatest concern of all, when Landler writes that the President seems now more determined just to come to terms with the world. What’s the problem? It’s a little late after fulfilling two elected terms as President of the United States to decide now to come to terms with the world.
Do "significant oversimplifications" govern our lives? The 5-second rule isn't true
Finally, in terms of coming to terms with the world, sometimes we have to come to terms with the fact that very comfortable laws turn out not to be laws at all. And one of these is the five second rule, that is the idea that if you drop food on the floor, if you pick it up in faster than five seconds there is no opportunity for bacterial infection. Along comes the Washington Post over the weekend to puncture that balloon. It turns out that a journal entitled Applied and Environmental Microbiology published a study in which it is revealed and I quote,
“The five-second rule is a significant oversimplification of what actually happens when bacteria transfer from a surface to food. Bacteria can contaminate instantaneously.”
Just in case you need a count, it turns out that there are 31 known pathogens responsible for an estimated 9 million cases of foodborne illness a year—that’s 31 pathogens, 9 million cases of illness per year. But thinking about the five second rule, do we really need the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology to tell us that it wasn’t true after all? I don’t think most people thought it was actually a rule or a law at all. The scientists again declared that the five second rule is a,
“Significant oversimplification of what actually happens.”
What’s the big worldview lesson here? It’s simply this: sometimes we prefer to live with those significant oversimplifications of what actually happens.