Not all lies are equal, though. Trump knew that COVID-19 was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu,” as he told the journalist Bob Woodward. But in public, he repeatedly likened it to the flu—giving the impression that the coronavirus was less harmful than it was. I’d like to hear from the candidates when they think a president is justified in lying—and when lying is impermissible. How candidates manage this answer would tell us something about how each might manage some of the job’s trickiest challenges.
What all the moderators know is that simply asking a question may not produce a worthy answer. In many cases, all it yields is a response, which is something very different. This is where moderators could step in to seek a more substantive answer—which might sound like fact-checking, but is not. If moderators are trusted to come up with revealing questions, they need the leeway to press the candidates on voters’ behalf to get answers.
If a candidate gives evasive or dubious answers when asked about vital issues, debate viewers can and do pick up on the pattern. A candidate who takes a question about topic A and answers one about topic B, because that issue is better for them politically, is trying to trick voters. A candidate who answers a pointed question with a spray of words is telling the public that his or her decision making lacks a firm foundation. Voters might expect such a candidate to behave similarly in office, offering haphazardly improvised responses to problems that can be solved only through preparation and sustained focus. Debate answers of this sort can illuminate which candidate’s White House staff will devote its time and attention to forward progress, and which candidate’s style of governing consists of repeated cleanups on aisle nine.
Candidates show a lot by what they don’t say and the attributes they don’t demonstrate in their answers. A response that reveals a lack of empathy or self-control is not one a moderator can fact-check, but it reveals blind spots that a presidential candidate will carry to the nation’s highest office.
No one wants to see an event with such a huge audience become a platform for deceit, but in the end, the structure of debates leaves this risk open. When and if a moderator chooses to step in on behalf of the facts, considerable skill will be required, given the running clock. A moderator must have a battery of knowledge sufficient to evaluate the veracity and adequacy of answers on a wide variety of topics, choose whether to do so while continuing to listen to the response (which might include bigger whoppers), decide which fibs and evasions to highlight, keep track of the time, and make sure that any fact-check frames the nature of the error completely and in context, applying the same standard to both candidates—all the while determining whether intervening at a given moment is of sufficient value relative to the larger goals of the night.