A Debate Disaster Waiting to Happen - NYTimes.com

There was not much of a contest in Wednesday night’s forum with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Mrs. Clinton answered the questions of the moderator, Matt Lauer, in coherent sentences, often with specific details. Mr. Trump alternated between rambling statements and grandiose boasts when he wasn’t lying.

Mr. Lauer largely neglected to ask penetrating questions, call out falsehoods or insist on answers when it was obvious that Mr. Trump’s responses had drifted off.

If the moderators of the coming debates do not figure out a better way to get the candidates to speak accurately about their records and policies — especially Mr. Trump, who seems to feel he can skate by unchallenged with his own version of reality while Mrs. Clinton is grilled and entangled in the fine points of domestic and foreign policy — then they will have done the country a grave disservice.

Whether or not one agrees with her positions, Mrs. Clinton, formerly secretary of state and once a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, showed a firm understanding of the complex issues facing the country. Mr. Trump reveled in his ignorance about global affairs and his belief that leading the world’s most powerful nation is no harder than running his business empire, which has included at least fourbankruptcies.

Mr. Lauer seemed most energized interrogating Mrs. Clinton about her use of a personal email server while secretary of state. Focusing on it meant that other critical issues — like America’s role in Afghanistan and its ties with China — went unaddressed. He was harder on Mrs. Clinton than on Mr. Trump, reflecting a tendency among some journalists to let Mr. Trump’s deceptions go unchallenged. That certainly was the case when he let Mr. Trump attack Mrs. Clinton for voting for the Iraq war and going into Libya when Mr. Trump had supported those actions.

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Disputing outright lies may actually be one of the easier challenges for a moderator. The harder task is to pierce fantasies and gibberish. That requires preparation and persistence.

Mr. Trump was asked to explain his qualifications to lead the armed forces. “I have great judgment,” was his response. Fortunately, despite the lack of a follow-up question to that non-answer, Mr. Trump was perfectly able to display his abysmal judgment.

He repeated his view that President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, is a better leader than President Obama. He denigrated America’s generals as having been “reduced to rubble.” He talked in circles about defeating the Islamic State, boasting of a secret plan that he would not share.

Mr. Trump reinforced his reputation for misogyny by defending his tweet from 2013 suggesting that sexual assaults were to be expected if women serve in the military. And, prompted by an audience question, he adjusted his immigration policy on the fly, suggesting that immigrants who join the military could avoid deportation.

Lucky for him, no one bothered to ask why he should be allowed to be commander in chief when he spent so much time attacking the parents of a Muslim Army captain killed in Iraq. Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump called for a huge expansion of the military that experts said would cost an extra $150 billion over a decade. He gave no hint where that money would come from.

At one point, Mrs. Clinton, trying to assure the audience that she would use military force judiciously, said, “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again, and we’re not putting ground troops into Syria.” This left unanswered the question of whether she had made a promise she can’t keep, particularly since there are some Special Operations forces in both battlefields now.

There will be many issues to explore at the three presidential debates. For the sake of the nation, the moderators need to be fully prepared to challenge the candidates, so voters can have a clear picture of how they will lead.