What does this debate tell us about presidential fitness?

Last Updated Sep 26, 2016 2:28 PM EDT

There are a number of political questions up in the air heading into the first debate. Can Hillary Clinton build enthusiasm among voters who don’t like Trump but are flirting with not voting or voting for a third party candidate? Can Clinton convince those voters who don’t trust her? Can Trump satisfy those voters who think he lacks the judgment for the job? These questions will encourage analysts to engage in theater reviews as they try to match debate moments with their perceptions about how voters see things. They are not crazy for trying to do this. Voters often vote based on style more than substance. Little moments do prick the emotions. Nevertheless, if this theater review style irritates you, there is another way to look at the first face-to-face meeting of the candidates: focus less on the performance on the stage and more on possible performance in office. 

Instead of thinking about expectations for each candidate, or the “narrative,” or what voters might or might not think about a jibe or stumble, watch the debates for what it tells us about the candidates’ habits of mind, communications skills, temperament and passion. This will not be easy. A lot of the analysis and Twitter traffic will be about other things. Looking back at the signature moments from past debates-- the quips and the stumbles-- most of them had nothing to do with illuminating whether the candidates debating were fit for the office.
 
With this in mind, here are some things I’m looking for: 
 

Habits of mind 

Voters often call out for a discussion of the issues, but we can learn about candidate positions on issues from their web sites. It’s harder to learn how the candidates think. What is their wiring? That’s what they’ll be applying to the unpredictable problems that will define their presidency. Is there evidence of inquisitiveness (a guard against group-think) and adaptation (a guard against dogmatic blindness) and creative thinking (a guard against stagnation)? That’s what we might discover if the candidates are asked questions about how they arrived at their policy positions or if they answer any hypothetical questions-- hypothetical questions being the overwhelming kind of questions they’ll face in office. 

How do they communicate?

Can the candidate break complex problems into component parts and then explain why their solutions solve those problems? Speaking clearly is useful in governing-- you have to bring the people along with you (including those who don’t support you) -- but these skills are also crucial to  communicating a president’s will to the administration that carries out their policies and to Congress. This is also where trust comes in. Presidential communication is over-emphasized, but it’s still true that a president needs people to trust them when they communicate. To the extent that Clinton and Trump can overcome trust issues with some voters during the debate, it will show they might be able to do the same in office.

Ninety minute stress test

Debates should not be about flash moments, though they will undoubtedly be scored that way. Thinking quickly on your feet is a necessary presidential skill, but it’s not the only presidential characteristic. Endurance, focus, depth and temperament are. These traits are tested over 90 minutes, not 15 seconds. Most important, they are not tested in the first ten minutes -- which may very well be the time when analysts, trading witticisms on Twitter come up with a judgment about the night that will take hold regardless of what happens in the remaining 80 minutes.

Passion

What drives these candidates? The presidency will warp and blow them off course. The passion for some idea will keep them steady. Some might call this vision, but vision without passion can fade. 

What’s in their mental library?

We are the product of our experiences and what we learn from them. That’s what these candidates will bring with them to the office. Both have had interesting lives full of success and disappointment. What residue have those experiences left and how do they deploy their past to understand the present?  
 
Obviously, these aren’t the only presidential attributes a candidate needs in office. There is a lot that debates can’t measure, which is why it’s dangerous to put too much emphasis on them. Measuring for the presidency also isn’t the only benefit to debates. Debates help focus the national choice and air important public policy issues and the choices at the center of them. But debates are the most intense look we get at the candidates during a campaign, so maybe we should think about the debate stage as a test of whether the candidates are ready for the next one.