Debate night: Five questions to ask

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There will be tons of analysis and commentary after the first presidential debate—some of it incisive and thought-provoking, some not so much. Still, there's no reason to feel that you need a talking head to cut through the noise to uncover the key moments and telling exchanges on display at Hofstra University.

Listen carefully, trust your common sense, exercise your own judgement, and you're sure to separate enough wheat from chaff to draw some solid conclusions. Here are five questions to hold on to as the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump unfolds. Keep them in mind, and you should find you're quickly getting the measure of both candidates—in real time.

  1. Is this someone I know or someone I've never seen before? Hillary Clinton has served as U.S. secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady; Donald Trump is one of the business world's most recognizable CEOs and a reality TV star. Both have been public figures for decades, and voters in every state have heard them offer opinions and ideas for just about every big challenge, from public education to immigration reform. Candidates don't get to reinvent themselves 42 days before an election, so remember what both have been saying for months and even years—and weigh it against what they're telling you tonight.
  1. Are these real ideas or "magic beans"? Presidents govern in partnership with an elected Congress, under the auspices of a Supreme Court, by the rules laid down in the Constitution and laws already on the books. If a presidential candidate is really serious about implementing strategies, they recognize this and offer plans that include partners—at every level of government and from every segment of society. Nobody gets magic beans to plant or magic wands to wave—not even presidents—so judge tonight's ideas against their prospects for success in a real, complex world.
  1. Are you not telling me because you don't know? Almost every debate has moments when one or more candidates refuse to deliver specifics on a particular position or idea. It may be warranted, in some rare instances, to take this approach. But it's always a red flag when a candidate offers nothing but a long string of promises to tell you later. These "secret" positions are sometimes nothing more than a dodge to hide the candidate's ignorance of the issues or a smoke screen to avoid answers to hard questions. In either instance, your guard should be up.
  1. Are you talking to me or talking past me? A candidate who talks about specific voting groups in a laundry list of "mentions" is not offering a strategy or a plan to help that group. Listen closely for detail. See if the candidate's comments reflect a level of interaction and understanding that only comes from years of real dialogue with the groups in question. Judge for yourself—do the remarks reflect inclusion and positive solutions, or are they just an exercise in "checking the right boxes" from the podium? And if you're still unsure, visit the candidates' websites to see if you can find a real command of the issues.
  1. Who shakes and rattles—and who rolls? Almost every presidential debate will have unscripted moments—questions and exchanges that the candidates clearly weren't expecting. That's a good thing, since every president faces big, unscripted moments that dwarf anything that could happen on a debate stage. Lean in at these moments and watch closely. Who is showing the steadiness, preparation and temperament absolutely necessary to be the next leader of the free world?

[Mike Rose]