Fact-checking often is the focus of post-presidential debate spin. But perhaps future-checking should get more emphasis when so much of a debate centers on the meta-narrative of a campaign instead of questions on the profound foreign-policy challenges awaiting the next president.
The record-setting 84 million viewers who tuned in this week heard a lot about the former Miss Venezuela, but nothing about the current convulsions in Caracas, where economic and political paralysis may become calamitous. Rosie O’Donnell got a mention, but not Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who tragically washed up on a Turkish beach, a victim and symbol of his nation’s vicious civil war and the resulting refugee crisis. And while there are figuratively no words to describe the depravity at that war’s epicenter, there literally were no words about Aleppo during the debate despite the world’s conscience constantly being shocked by images of slaughtered civilians.
Voters seem to sense the global gravity of the election: While 84 percent told the Pew Research Center in July that the economy was “very important” to their vote, 75 percent said the same of foreign policy. And it’s not like these looming challenges and other likely crises aren’t new — or news. In fact, even a read from the debate day’s newspapers attest to what wasn’t asked by moderator Lester Holt, or brought up by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
“Ferocious New Strikes in Aleppo Ignite Caustic Exchange at U.N.,” read a New York Times headline on a story describing deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S. over Moscow’s military enabling of the homicidal Assad regime. Another Russia-related headline in the Times read, “Russia, Jailer of Local Separatists, Hosts Foreign Ones,” while the Wall Street Journal wrote “Spending on Warplanes Fuels Arms Race: Russian and Chinese Programs Become Air Force’s Most Pressing Challenge.”
On Wednesday came a definitive Dutch report stating that it was indeed a Russian missile that was used by Ukrainian separatists to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines jet in 2014. These, and other egregious examples of Vladimir Putin’s impunity, recalls Mitt Romney’s designation of Russia as “America’s no. 1 geopolitical foe” during a substantive debate exchange in 2012. On Monday, the candidate’s mainly discussed Russian hacking.
And it’s not just Russian provocations, but Chinese ones, too, particularly in the East and South China Seas as part of broader border disputes with several neighbors. China wasn’t discussed much Monday, except in the context of trade, and then the questions and exchanges were almost all about the economic — but not the geostrategic — component of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact in part designed as a response to a rising China. (And the Sino surge is scientific as well, as evidenced by the Star Tribune’s story, “China wows world with telescope.”)
Another scientific matter was reflected in the Wall Street Journal’s “Commitment by India Boosts Paris Climate Pact.” Yet climate change was another essential — if not existential — issue that got too little discussion during the debate.
The postwar record number of displaced people didn’t really register, either, despite the Mediterranean migration crisis impacting European politics. From the front lines of the continent’s crisis came this New York Times story: “Migrants in their Schools? No Way, Some Greeks Say.” More Mideast migrants are likely, however, and not just from Syria, especially considering stories like the Journal’s “Christian Writer Is Killed In Jordan.”
Mexico was mentioned, but mostly in an economic and trade context. But the story is much more complex, as evidenced in “Mexico Grapples with a Rise in Killings” from the Wall Street Journal, and “Two Years After a Night of Horror, Mexican Students Seek Answers” in the Times — two stories reflecting the inextricable link between violence and illegal drugs that are voraciously consumed north of the border.
Back across the pond, European leaders’ response has eroded confidence among some in the European Union. That could also impact NATO, whose efficacy depends on continental cohesion and robust U.S. backing. Recalling comments he made as “a businessperson” on a “major show,” Trump said when asked of the transatlantic alliance that, “I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO,” but pressed his point on members’ contributions and the need to focus on terror.
Clinton tried to reassure European and Asian allies “that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them.”
“Words matter when you run for president,” Clinton said. “And they really matter when you are president.”
They also really matter for voters selecting a president. So more words, about more substantive issues — particularly foreign policy — need to be said in subsequent debates. Rehashed spats over Trump’s taxes, Clinton’s e-mails, or other personal characteristics that comprised a record percentage of debate questions was a missed opportunity for voters. After all, what will matter most isn’t the issue of a former Miss Universe contestant, but contending with the current world amiss.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.