After such a ridiculously long political campaign — it's been 18 months since Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy and 16 months since Donald Trump did the same — Sunday night's presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis might test a prospective voter's patience. After all, how many times can the same well-trod ground of tax returns, email practices, immigration policy, ISIS, income inequality and temperament be covered?
Fortunately, viewers are getting a reprieve of sorts. This will be a town hall format with questions asked not by journalists (given harsh criticism of their performances in debates so far, they probably need a day off anyway) but by members of the audience. It an additional twist, average Americans have gotten in on the act as well, voting in advance for questions that may be asked of the candidates. (Vote early and often at PresidentialOpenQuestions.com.)
Conventional wisdom is that a town hall is about connecting with the audience, demonstrating empathy and thinking fast on one's feet. You never know what subject might be broached. There's an intimacy in this as well as a nice fringe benefit — real voters are less likely to dwell on the candidates' personal foibles.
But what to ask? Since half the questions are expected to be drawn from online voting, we thought we would nominate our top five under review.
•Do you support expanding, not cutting, Social Security's modest benefits? This looks likely to make the debate based on preliminary voting results (it was ranked second as of Thursday), and while Social Security has been addressed repeatedly during the campaign, we like the manner in which this question is posed — for many retirees, Social Security is falling short of what they need; so what are you going to do about it?
•Would you act to repeal Citizens United? Admittedly, Secretary Clinton has made it clear she favors its repeal, and Mr. Trump has been critical of this controversial Supreme Court case as well. (He frequently rails against the influence of big money on politics.) But here's how raising the issue helps: Eliciting strong statements from both of them denouncing the influence of big donors on the process may help pressure the next Congress to finally take action.
•How do you plan to make health care affordable for everyone? Repealing Obamacare doesn't get the job done. But then neither do vague statements about "fixing" it, particularly when your husband, a former president, is out bad-mouthing the Affordable Care Act. We aren't hopeful that we'll end up with a reality-based discussion given the heavy-handed politics involved, but it's worth a shot.
•How will you advance anti-discrimination laws for LGBT+ Americans? This is another question where the phrasing is helpful and allows a broader sweep that goes beyond bathrooms or marriage. Discrimination against gays is still widely accepted in states with few protections in housing, jobs, health and safety. It's an especially tough question for Mr. Trump given that his running mate backed Indiana's "religious freedom law" that allowed businesses to discriminate against gays.
•What will you do to protect the rights of Native Americans and their land? The beauty of this particular question is that it's so rarely asked by New York- and D.C.-based journalists, yet it could reveal much about the candidates. The ongoing pipeline dispute in North Dakota is not just about Native American rights, it's also a struggle between big-monied interests and people who feel they're getting steamrolled by government-backed development — a circumstance many Americans, not just tribal elders, can appreciate these days.
No doubt there will be all kinds of subtext in the debate. Did Mr. Trump do his homework? Are Bill Clinton's peccadilloes fair game? Given her lead in the polls, will Ms. Clinton fall back to a prevent-defense? But this might also be the best chance to judge the candidates as human beings and find out whether they can truly appreciate the concerns of average folks instead of just using them as the means to re-raise familiar talking points.