The debate is here! From the hype, you would think Chris Mathews is going to run out and scream “Are you ready to rumble?” Is it really that big a deal? Pollsters say that there isn’t a large body of evidence that debates do much, but on the margin, they could have some effect for one participant or the other. The campaigns will have specific goals that if accomplished could turn a close election.
The media narrative lately is that Trump’s public statements and persona are graded on a curve. Take that as true. If Trump’s policy acumen was a test of his ability to win the race, he would be polling at 10%. Instead he’s polling in the 40s and within striking distance of winning the Presidency. He has much more modest ambitions in the debate.
His first goal will be to stay on message. If a question is on ISIS talk about ISIS! Don’t wander off and accuse Clinton of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby or burying Jimmy Hoffa in a grotto in Arkansas. In a one on one debate with a smart candidate like Clinton that’s an opening to get destroyed. By staying on message he will be showing competency for all those who haven’t seen or paid much attention to him. He needs that. Voters NOT in his base of deplorables and disillusioned Republicans need to feel a modest level of comfort with him on policy. Now is his time.
Trump must also show respect. Not necessarily to Clinton, but to the voters. Don’t throw out a bunch of lies that will be fact checked instantly. He should talk about the American people and their needs. He should NOT talk about how he’s going to make money regardless of whether he wins. Being a jerk may endear him to his base, but he needs to find another five percent of so of independents or republicans who are leery of him and convince them that his temperament is presidential for his campaign to consider the debate a win.
Staying on message and being respectful to the American people are the only things that Trump has to do. People overwhelmingly don’t like him but all he needs is to convince another 5% or so to vote for him. Yes, that is a very low bar, but Trump has yet to show that he can pass it. And the spotlight will be on him for 90 minutes. He can’t run and he can’t hide. It’s one on one. The bar isn’t high, but he hasn’t come close to meeting it yet. Clinton has to meet a much more rigorous set of criteria before her campaign can declare victory.
First, she must show superior knowledge and mastery of the issues. This should be no problem, but this being a debate makes it a problem. There are time limits on answers. Mrs. Clinton tends to be wonky. She knows every detail of her policy positions. She must boil that knowledge down to a simple and concise statement which people unfamiliar with an issue can understand. A former philosophy professor of mine used to always ask a question and then say “I want the answer in 25 words or less”. Mrs. Clinton has to take that to heart. Once she has done that, the debate format will allow for elaboration and discussion, but initially there are only two minutes for the response. She must master giving a concise answer.
Character and trust are also huge issues for Mrs. Clinton. Similar to Trump’s difficulty with policy, Mrs. Clinton is not going to convince voters to love her overnight. Like Trump, she only needs to convince 5% of undecided voters that she isn’t as slimy as she is made out to be. She cannot attack Trump initially without appearing to be condescending and “bitchy”. Responding aggressively to attacks from Trump, on the other hand, will make her seem strong and will impress suburban women one of her target groups of voters. When asked about her “scandals” she needs to be concise and be reflective and not defensive. She needs to acknowledge that she has made an error, why she made it and how she’s going to fix it in the future. That won’t get everyone on her side, but it may well get 5% more in her camp.
Finally, Mrs. Clinton needs to show that she is not the aloof and condescending career politician that is so derided and dreaded by the voters this election cycle. Trump’s biggest asset is that he is NOT a politician this year. Clinton must show voters that she is earnest about being an agent of change which is what this election is all about. She needs to mention that she worked with Bernie Sanders on the platform of the Democratic Party and will work with other “change” progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken to move the Country forward for the middle class.
Clinton has to work much harder to accomplish those tasks than Trump has to accomplish his debate goals. Will there be fireworks? Only if Trump fires first is my guess. Otherwise we may well be singing around the campfire singing Kumbaya and waiting for the next episode of the Big Bang Theory to come on.