The political shadowboxing before presidential debates is cleverly choreographed. Take the 2000 contest between then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore. Before that year’s first general election debate, the Bush team did a superb job of lowering expectations for Governor Bush by emphasizing to reporters what an experienced and superb debater Gore was. So, when Bush more or less held his own in the opening debate, the Texas governor got a lot of the “better than expected” press coverage his campaign had all the time been angling for.
But President Donald Trump is, as we know, unorthodox. Instead of building up the long U.S. senatorial and 2008 and 2012 national debating experience of former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump scorns the Democratic nominee repeatedly as lacking mental acuity and physical stamina, publicly branding him “Sleepy Joe” and saying things such as, “He doesn’t know where he is” and, “Biden can’t put two sentences together.”
Trump is, for some reason, doing his best to lower voters’ expectations about Biden. When Biden shows up like Bush did 20 years earlier, answering the moderator’s questions and speaking in complete sentences with a dash of humor, he will have totally exceeded those low expectations and measurably helped his campaign.
If I had the chance (which I will not) to ask Trump and Biden questions in the presidential debate, here are a few I’d like to hear them answer:
To President Trump: Which Democratic president of your adult lifetime do you most admire, and why?
To both men: Since 2000, just two presidential nominees — Democrat John Kerry and Republican John McCain — ever served in the U.S. military in wartime. The military draft was in effect when you were young men; did you ever think about volunteering to serve your country?
Your fellow Americans understand that we as a nation and a people face historic and daunting challenges. We know there is no ouchless, painless magic bullet to make things right in America. Tell us here tonight: What sacrifices are you calling upon your fellow citizens to make for the common good? Remembering the words of President John F. Kennedy, what burdens will you ask us to bear; what price will you ask us to pay?
If you had the assurance that one proposed constitutional amendment would be passed by the two-thirds vote required in both the House and Senate and ratified by three-quarters of the states, which amendment would you endorse?
What is your favorite children’s book? Could you name a favorite character in that book?
If you had a do-over and could change one past political position you had taken, which one would you change?
Before he was 22 years old, Mike Mansfield of Montana, who would later serve as a U.S. Senate majority leader longer than anyone in history and then serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan under both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, had served honorably in the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. Before he died, he instructed that his simple headstone at Arlington National Cemetery be inscribed: “Michael J. Mansfield, PVT. U.S. Marine Corps.” In one sentence, what would you want your own epitaph to be?
Mark Shields is a nationally syndicated columnist.