Opinion: A presidential debate we could learn from

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Jeb Bush, second from left, is flanked by Mike Huckabee, left, Marco Rubio, center, Donald Trump, second from right, and Ben Carson during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Oct. 28, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Reliable intelligence sources indicate that “Jihadi John,” the British-born ISIL terrorist who appeared in a series of videos beheading Western prisoners, is housed with other militants in a converted office building in the densely populated town of Tal Abiad in northern Syria.

If you were president of the United States, what would you do?

Maybe that is the kind of question that moderators should be asking at the ongoing Republican and Democratic presidential candidate debates.

OPINION

Lately, the questions that actually have been asked, and the manner in which they’ve been framed, have become controversial. So much so, that the Republican National Committee has suspended their participation in the next NBC debate, due to what they characterized as “mean spirited” questions from debate moderators at CNBC, such as the following two examples:

For Donald Trump: “Is this a comic book version of a real campaign?”

For Marco Rubio: “Now, you’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or least finish what you start?”

Whether or not the Republicans are justified in their complaints, or just frustrated because the media are making them look bad by not lobbing softballs, they are right about the debates’ general ineffectiveness. For they are failing at showing who is best qualified to be the leader of the free world.

How do we make the debates more effective in helping voters choose?

Presidents ought to be “hired” the same way that teachers were hired at my college, with a real audition. Instead of just grilling them about their educational philosophy, the screening committee marched candidates into a classroom with real students and watched them teach a lesson.

In the same manner, we could march Trump and Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton into a virtual Oval Office, temporarily anoint them president, and ask them to demonstrate actual governance.

Like the introductory query about “Jihadi John,” more such hypothetical questions directing candidates to role play as president, would shed light on their intelligence and experience, their knowledge of world affairs, and their decision-making process:

Ms. Fiorina, you are the president, and the nation has just been shocked by mass killings at three different U.S. schools in one week, in which a total of 50 innocents were gunned down. What do you do?

Secretary Clinton, you are the president, and in a top level meeting with Vladimir Putin, you were offered a proposal by the premier whereby Russia would withdraw from the Ukraine, if the U.S. agreed to a political settlement in Syria in which Assad remained in power for another five years. What do you do?

Senator Paul, you are president, and Congress is on the verge of shutting down the government unless you scrap the tentative treaty with Iran. What do you do?

Senator Sanders, the Supreme Court says Colorado must, after all, abide by federal law prohibiting sale and use of marijuana. You are president, so what do you do?

Senator Rubio, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is on the telephone requesting a summit. You are president: Do you take the call? And if you do, let us eavesdrop on your end.

If moderators invited candidates to react in authentic presidential situations like these, voters would not be subjected to speech writers’ campaign pitches which their candidates have memorized.

Instead, the electorate would get to see how potential nominees think on their feet.

And the TV audience and general public, at the very least, would be better served than by the current American Idol-style pageants masquerading as serious debate.

David McGrath is emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of The Territory.

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