I’m a truth geek.
To me, facts matter. Yes, I like to hang out in political circles, which you might think would inure me to fabrication frustration because flights of fancy are pretty much de rigueur for politicians.
But, no, I remain aggravated by untruths. Which means this has been one tough presidential campaign.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take leave of the facts, though Trump’s departures are epic. His supporters vehemently disagree, and they and I have gone around repeatedly on this, but they have no case. If you want proof, check out PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonpartisan fact-checking operation that truth-tests statements by thousands of individuals and organizations.
As of Friday afternoon, PolitiFact had evaluated 259 Trump statements and 255 from Clinton. It rated 181 of Trump’s claims and 70 of Clinton’s as either “Mostly False,” “False” or “Pants on Fire” false. That’s 70 percent for Trump, and 27 percent for Clinton. Clinton, in other words, is a typical politician. Trump is like nothing we’ve seen.
Now let me be clear: When either does it, it’s a turnoff.
Why does this matter? Because facts dictate thoughts and feelings (though it’s often the reverse in politics). And facts also inform good policy, because they define the problem to be fixed.
So now we come to Monday night’s presidential debate. Tens of millions of Americans will be watching, most of them ill-equipped to tell fact from fiction. The candidates themselves could do that, but if either one calls the other out on a falsehood, the accused’s fans will reject that as the opponent playing politics. The same likely will be true if moderator Lester Holt tries to intervene.
So, how to get at the facts Monday night?
Put PolitiFact, or some other nonpartisan fact-checker, at the moderator’s table. Let those folks examine in real time each candidate’s statements and if they uncover a untruth, they call it out.
And what then? Aye, there’s the rub.
Any good regulatory system requires punishment. I thought of connecting electrodes to the candidates and zapping them for each offense, but that’s probably a criminal offense, and the voltage might do mad things to Trump’s hair and give Clinton some kind of relapse.
I thought about a dunk tank or a chocolate cream pie in the kisser, which would be appropriate for this burlesque carnival we call the 2016 election, but probably not enough to dissuade either from doing it again.
So I’ve settled on taking away the one thing neither could do without — oxygen. Which, for political candidates, means time.
Say something false, you lose time.
The debate is 90 minutes. Let’s play fair and give Clinton and Trump 40 minutes each to start, with the other 10 minutes for Holt to explain the ground rules, ask questions and wrap up. Post the clocks prominently. And if you transgress, you lose 30 seconds of your time. And your opponent gets them. A second one is worth 45 seconds. And for a third and every one thereafter, dock one full minute.
I’m not talking about stuff like, “I’m the healthiest sonofagun you’ll ever elect” or “my husband is a paragon of virtue.”
I’m talking about stuff like, “I was against the war in Iraq from the start,” and “My email practices were allowed.”
If one candidate runs out of time before the debate is over, tough noogies. He or she has to stand there and listen to the other blather away. And if that candidate loses the rest of his or her time by spinning one untruth after another, just bring down the curtain and cut to the commercials.
At least we know they’re true.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.