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Morning Glory: The Biden versus Trump debates, part one

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Opinions on what questions should or should not be asked on Thursday night are everywhere. Hundreds of pundits have already spoken and written quite a lot on this, including me.

There are subjects which ought to be asked and some that ought not to be asked, by CNN’s Dana Bash and Jake Tapper and by this election cycle’s future debate moderators. I’ll deal with the latter category of question Thursday. First, the ‘should be asked’ queries. 

I’ve worked with both of CNN’s hosts on GOP presidential primary debates and have a good understanding of the process they are undertaking based on that experience. But my understanding is imperfect because the CNN of 2015-2016 is very different from that of today. Both Bash and Tapper are professionals but CNN executives, producers, and directors as well as its ‘newsroom culture’ have all changed in the past eight years, just as has the country, and I’m not privy to those changes inside the network. 

I am also not a prophet or the son of a prophet, and don’t have a crystal ball, so I have no idea what the many rehearsals and inputs and the news business blender of a legion of CNN employees and the hosts will come up with for Thursday night. 

But the stakes are so high for the network that it must weigh carefully the urgent need to fairly conduct the proceeding. If on Friday we are talking about ‘Dana Bash did this’ or ‘Jake Tapper said that,’ it will be a massive fail on the network’s part. They have a huge role to play in election 2024, but it should be one that very few people outside of the network remember. 

On Thursday morning I’ll be writing about what Bash and Tapper should not be discussing as they put issues in the form of questions. Today, though, focus on what they should be asking. 

It is only a 90-minute debate, and it includes two commercial breaks. Subtract the welcome and the closing statements, and we are talking about 80 to 85 minutes of time for President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump to speak to each other and the roughly 150 million Americans who will begin voting in three months. (Illinois, Minnesota, South Dakota and Virginia are among the states that allow early voting in late September. There may be others. Ballotpedia has a good run down of the various dates when the election actually begins.

These 80+ minutes matter a great deal to the voting, and thus to our collective future, so the candidates should be talking almost all of the time. 

The best debate would be built on very short questions that mirror the concerns of Americans: inflation; immigration; Israel’s war in Gaza and the possible expansion of that war to Lebanon; the war in Ukraine; the threats China poses to the U.S. and our allies; the perceived infirmity of President Biden and the prosecutions of former President Trump; and the future of our Republic. Those eight topics cover the broad issue sets facing the country as it chooses between Biden and Trump. 

If the moderators tailor their (hopefully very) short questions to those eight areas, then Bash and Tapper will have done the job most Americans want them to do: Set the table and let the two candidates talk. Stay out of the way. 

Examples of concise questions that are free of agendas: ‘Inflation has been an issue since you took office President Biden. Is it over? Will interest rates start to fall and keep falling?’ 

‘You have said many things about the border and immigration, President Trump. What do you want voters to know about your plans for the many millions of people who are in the country without invitation and contrary to law?’

‘What is the best policy for the United States to pursue vis-a-vis Israel and Iran and all of Iran’s proxies?’

‘We’d like to ask both of you about your ages, as whichever one of you takes the oath of office next January, you would end that term as the oldest president in American history. Are you fit to do the job and should voters be concerned about your age?’

You can figure out straightforward questions on the other ‘big issues,’ and then evaluate the job the moderators do based on your own expectations. It really isn’t that difficult to get out of the way of the candidates. 

I don’t care if one or the other of the candidates utters a whopper: It isn’t the job of Bash and Tapper or the moderators at the second of their meetings or of the meeting between Vice President Kamala Harris and whomever Trump selects as his running mate, to ‘fact check’ anyone in real time. That way lies deep damage for the network and ruin for the host who presumes to opine mid-debate on ‘the facts,’ even if one or the other says something akin to ‘America never landed on the moon.’ That’s for the entire country to decide after the debate. 

There will be an ocean of commentary pouring out across the land. The moderators Thursday and in subsequent debates do not have to, and should resist any temptation to insert their opinions on the validity or completeness of the candidates’ answers. They may take a rhetorical punch from one or both men. ‘This is the business we’ve chosen,’ said Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part 2.  A Trump tattoo is hardly new, just as a Biden roundhouse at a reporter has many precedents. The job is not to react. To press on. The clock will. 

90 total minutes isn’t a lot of time. The audience wants fairness from the moderators. That’s all. 

Ask yourself: Who refereed the three fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier?

You might know the names of Arthur Mercante, Tony Perez and Carlos Padilla Jr. but the overwhelming majority of people who recall those epic boxing battles don’t. Which is how it should be after every two-way battle. Ring the bell, keep time, and go home hoping you aren’t the subject of a career-ending faceplant. 

Hugh Hewitt is host of ‘The Hugh Hewitt Show,’ heard weekday mornings 6am to 9am ET on the Salem Radio Network, and simulcast on Salem News Channel. Hugh wakes up America on over 400 affiliates nationwide, and on all the streaming platforms where SNC can be seen. He is a frequent guest on the Fox News Channel’s news roundtable hosted by Brett Baier weekdays at 6pm ET. A son of Ohio and a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Michigan Law School, Hewitt has been a Professor of Law at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law since 1996 where he teaches Constitutional Law. Hewitt launched his eponymous radio show from Los Angeles in 1990.  Hewitt has frequently appeared on every major national news television network, hosted television shows for PBS and MSNBC, written for every major American paper, has authored a dozen books and moderated a score of Republican candidate debates, most recently the November 2023 Republican presidential debate in Miami and four Republican presidential debates in the 2015-16 cycle. Hewitt focuses his radio show and his column on the Constitution, national security, American politics and the Cleveland Browns and Guardians. Hewitt has interviewed tens of thousands of guests from Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump over his 40 years in broadcast, and this column previews the lead story that will drive his radio/ TV show today.

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