We Need A Real Debate, Not The 'Fight Of The Century'

09/26/2016 08:26 am ET | Updated Sep 26, 2016

We're told that Monday night's confrontation between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton could draw 100 million viewers and "rank among television benchmarks like the finales of "MASH" and "Cheers." A Google search for the words "presidential debate" and "Super Bowl" yields 2.6 million hits, although no musical entertainment is expected at halftime.

We're not being promised that the candidates will debate the issues of greatest concern to the American people.

But then, it may not even really be a debate at all. A debate, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides." Given Trump's cheap theatrics, and the media's sensationalist bent, we're likely to see a "pageant" -- defined as "a mere show" and "an ostentatious display" -- instead.

That would be tragic -- for the democratic process, and for the country.


Millions of Americans deserve answers -- including the unjustly incarcerated, African Americans, Native Americans, the unemployed, people struggling to get by on their meager earnings, young people burdened with student debt, and everyone who is concerned about the future of the planet.

Will they get them?

The pre-debate coverage isn't promising. We've heard a lot about trivial and gossipy topics -- like the possible presence in the debate audience of someone who claims to have had a relationship with one of the candidate's spouses several decades ago.

Who cares?

We've also heard a lot about "debate prep." Clinton reportedly "has a thick dossier on Mr. Trump" and will try to "knock (him) off balance," and that Trump's campaign "has created a detailed analysis of Hillary Clinton's debate style -- including her body language and verbal tics ..."

There's something wrong with a "debate" process that encourages campaigns to do this kind of preparation instead of working to find solutions to the nation's problems. Maybe the candidates should be placed in darkened rooms where they can answer questions in writing, like "Jeopardy!" contestants on the final round.

Here are some of the issues that Lester Holt and NBC should ask the candidates to debate.

The Economy

Incomes went up, and poverty decreased, in the latest census figures. But the nation has yet to fully recover from the financial crisis of 2008 -- a crisis caused by greed, reckless and widespread lawbreaking on Wall Street.

Hourly wages have been lagging for decades. Millions of Americans are among the "working poor," and poverty numbers are still higher than they were before the crisis.

The middle class is disappearing. Many Americans have left the labor force in discouragement. Others are working part-time when they need full-time work.

Out-of-pocket health care costs are soaring for insured Americans. Inequality keeps rising. The wealthiest of the wealthy -- the top 0.01 percent -- keep getting richer, and their money (along with that of large corporation) is corrupting the political process.

Economic questions:

Do the candidates support the fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage? Do they believe that workers' bargaining rights should be strengthened?

Do they support stronger regulation of Wall Street and the breakup of big banks to prevent future crises?

Will they support higher taxes on the wealthy and and corporations? Would they use the tax revenue to create good jobs rebuilding America's infrastructure and providing needed services?

Do the candidates have a plan for reducing long-term unemployment, and for promoting good jobs and economic growth? How do they intend to create social mobility in a nation where your family's income at birth is likely to seal your economic fate for life?

Do the candidates have a plan for debt-free college education? Do they support Medicare for All - or, at a minimum, increasing current levels of coverage? Will they support stronger benefits for American workers, including guaranteed sick leave, as well as paid vacation and family leave?

Will they fight to get money out of politics?

Racial Justice, Criminal Injustice

Donald Trump could take a civics lesson or two from another celebrity, rapper Jay-Z, who made a video op-ed for the New York Times entitled "The War On Drugs is An Epic Fail." As the video and accompanying text explain, African Americans are 13 percent of the general population but nearly one-third of those arrested for drug law violations -- even though white and black Americans use drugs at roughly the same rates.

We imprison more people than any other country on earth. 2.2 million Americans are confined in local, state, and federal prisons, and more than 4.7 million are under community supervision (parole and probation). Altogether nearly 7 million people are caught up in the criminal justice system. 5.8 million people -- disproportionately black and brown -- have lost the right to vote.

The epidemic of African-American deaths at the hands of police officers continues unabated.

At the same time, our nation is wracked by the symptoms of institutional, structural, and historical racism: mass incarceration, racial inequality in wealth and income, disparities in health and longevity, and the trivialization of black and brown people's suffering.

Questions on racial justice:

Do the candidates agree that "Black Lives Matter"? What will they do to end the epidemic of African-American deaths at police hands? Do they believe that urban police forces have been overly militarized -- and should emphasize community policing instead?

Bernie Sanders says Jay-Z is right -- we must end the failed war on drugs. Do the candidates agree with Jay-Z and Bernie?

What do the candidates plan to do about mass incarceration, problems with federal and state sentencing laws, and the criminalization of whole segments of our population? Will they end the use of private prisons, and the privatization of services inside public prisons?

How would they handle victimless crimes, drug addiction, or mental illness? How would they help prisoners reintegrate into society? Do they support giving convicted felons the right to vote?

How will the candidates address African-American infant mortality, which is 2.5 times that of whites? How will they address differences in income, social mobility, and life expectancy?

Do they believe that African Americans still suffer from the after-effects of slavery -- and if so, how would they address that?

The Environment

A new report shows that we're moving toward a climate catastrophe even faster than previously thought.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is causing environmental damage, disrupting sacred lands, and posing a future environmental risk to a broad swath of American geography. Native American leaders from 567 tribes will present their concerns to the White House this week in "nation-to-nation" talks.

President Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan in 2015 to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. In addition, a carbon tax and other climate measures could help slow climate change.

Environmental questions:

Do the candidates believe in climate science? Do they understand the urgency of climate crisis? Trump says he'll scrap the Clean Power Plan and gut the EPA. How does he plan to reduce our nation's climate footprint? Will Clinton support or expand it?

Do the candidates support the efforts of tribal leaders to protect their lands? Do they oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Where do the candidates stand on the carbon tax? Will the candidates impose stronger regulations to prevent future environmental disasters and degradations?

Fight of the Century

The Clinton campaign says it's worried the media will give Trump a "passing grade," even if he lies extravagantly. That's a legitimate concern. But it's part of a larger problem: a "political/media industrial complex" that encourages networks to care more about ratings than reality, and politicians to concentrate on posturing over policies.

Monday night's debate is a chance to change that. Let's hope that NBC is more patriotic than CBS, whose CEO boasted of Trump's candidacy, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."

"It's like waiting for the Ali-Frazier fight," Dick Cavett said of Monday's Trump/Clinton event. Presumably he meant the first Ali-Frazier bout, which was called "the Fight of the Century."

But this isn't an entertainment spectacle -- even though it's being marketed like one. This is the "Fight for the Century," for the choices that will shape our future. Let's hope Clinton and Trump spar about things that really matter.

An issues-driven debate might not be as good for the media, but it would be a lot better for America. For viewers who want Super Bowl-style action, there's always Monday Night Football.