About that presidential debate Monday night: What happened to the pre-ordained and carefully described format of what were to have been six carefully separate segments of 15 minutes each on as many different subjects?
It dissolved, that's what, into a free-flowing game of the Dozens in which Democrat Hillary Clinton artfully baited Republican Donald Trump, matador-style, into more of the self-destructive bull rushes that have marked his post-convention campaign.
Trump was diverted by Clinton all too often into using his time for querulous self-defense on matters ranging from his unpublished tax returns to his bankruptcies to, God help us, his temperament. (Trump assured us his was just fine and, moreover, that he was "loved.")
In the process, the New York real estate tycoon (who lamented that he made "only" $654 million last year and suggested he was "smart" to avoid paying federal taxes) lost the control he showed early on, when he made a few effective points about the harmfulness of NAFTA and other trade deals. Ultimately, he surrendered to his all too-familar debate habits of bombast and bullying, verbally overriding both moderator Lester Holt and opponent Clinton, who at one point smiled complacently and said, "Well, just listen to what you heard!"
What viewers heard was not nearly enough from either candidate on several vital issues of the day. Where was a discussion of health-care policy, and, in particular, of the troubling epidemic of health-care providers dropping out of participation in the current Affordable Care system? Where was any sort of useful debate on the major problem confounding our cities just now — that of police shootings of unarmed black males? What, for that matter, about the currently raging issue of athletes refusing to stand during pre-game playings of the national anthem? True, the issue is mainly symbolic, but therein lies its relevance and even a lightning-round treatment of it might have drawn some revealing comments from the candidates.
Moderator Holt, NBC's evening news anchor, seemed determined to uphold the honor of his network and to prove that he was no Matt Lauer, who failed in the recent "Commander in Chief" forum to rebut Trump's claim to have opposed the Iraq War folly of George W. Bush. Holt pushed Trump on the subject, and, again, valuable time was lost there. Trump does indeed seem to have been either silent or acquiescent on the issue in the key pre-war period, but let's be fair. His finest moment in this campaign may have come during one of the GOP multi-candidate debates when he publicly accused Bush of lying about the rationale for the unnecessary and disastrous war.
Except for one brief outburst from Trump on the subject of Hillary's emails, that issue, for better or for worse, went unexamined.
And what is this notion, conceded to Trump even by many of his detractors, that he represents change, while Hillary stands for the status quo? The latter part of that would seem correct, but Trump's blithe advocacy of a return to tax cuts for the rich and of trickle-down economics seems less like a change than a return to policies that have failed over and over again.
There are two more scheduled debates, two more chances to get it right. Let's hope for the best. Or something better, anyhow.