With Monday’s presidential debate looming – the first of three such scheduled affairs – here are five questions to ponder.
Is The Hype Overripe? “Pivotal”. “Crucial”. “Make-or-break”. They’re but a few of the dramatic adjectives used to characterize Monday’s night’s 90-minute affair.
Do yourself a favor: don’t buy the hype.
Yes, Donald Trump is in a situation not unlike Ronald Reagan’s in 1980 – the need to pass the so-called “commander-in-chief test”.
Donald Trump is the Uno card in this game. Let’s see if he uses that unpredictably to put Clinton on the spot.
With one big difference: Reagan debated Jimmy Carter only once, just a week before Election Day. Had he flunked the test, there was no time for a makeup exam. Trump, on the other hand, has multiple chances to pass.
Besides, if recent history’s taught us anything, the first of the three presidential debates isn’t determinative of the election’s outcome. Reagan was wobbly in his first performance in 1984; he went on to win 49 states. Barack Obama ended up on the canvas in his first debate in 2012; he too bounced back.
Whoever is scored the “winner” of Round One on Long Island: they’ll have to prove it again, 13 days later, in St. Louis. And a third time, on Oct. 19, in Las Vegas. That’s plenty of time to make up for lost ground, or surrender ground gained.
Trump’s Approach? Let’s return to that 1980 debate.
Reagan won the night for three reasons:
First, he came across as measured and genial, not the impulsive warmonger his foes had implied.
Second, his opponent blundered (“I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was,” said Carter. “She said she thought nuclear weaponry – and the control of nuclear arms.”)
Third, Reagan had a lights-out summation: “[A]re you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago?”
Trump needs to tone down the theatrics. He’s playing to undecided independents on Monday night, not the faithful who flock to his rallies. They’re looking for a Thatcher, not a Berlusconi.
If Trump’s lucky, Clinton overdoes it – say, an implausible defense of her and her husband’s forthrightness. But here's what he needs most on Monday night: three sentences that capture the public’s angst, with economic and societal uncertainty – not immigration – as the core of his argument.
Clinton’s Approach? Picture a batter digging at the plate, not knowing what’s coming next: fastball, curveball, beanball? Such is life debating Donald Trump.
Clinton can run circles around Trump on policy, or moments when she’s been privy to a tough policy decision (expect to hear about her watching the bin Laden raid go down).
But for Clinton to flex her bigger policy brain runs the risk of coming across as smug or a scold. And there’s the challenge of not letting a challenger she views as far less qualified getting under her skin (a sighing, exasperated Al Gore, in the 2000 presidential debates, wrote the how-to on how to lose an audience this way).
The guess here: Clinton falls back on her ability to work across the aisle during her Senate years, talks up her common-cloth Midwestern roots, and goes out of her to humanize herself (making light of her cough, her age, the media’s past obsessions with her hair and clothes).
Lester Holt’s Approach? This debate’s format: 90 minutes subdivided into six 15-minute sessions – two minutes apiece for the candidates followed by 11 minutes of back-and-forth (the second debate will be a town-hall setting; the third debate reverts to the first debate’s format).
This could be gripping or graphic television. Clinton and Trump may use such time for a spirited debate, with moderator and NBC News anchor Lester Holt akin to a lion-tamer. Or Holt may be reduced to a hockey linesman, trying to break up fight after fight.
We wouldn’t be talking about the moderator were it not for Candy Crowley’s intervention into a 2012 debate (also at Hofstra) between Obama and Mitt Romney and Matt Lauer’s more recent foray that seemed to please no one.
And that’s the question here – no so much Holt’s ideology (turns out he’s a registered New York Republican) as it is how he approaches the job. Does he spend the night playing schoolmarm, calling out lies and distortions and correcting exaggerations. Or does he give the two candidates considerable leeway?
Look for Holt to devote considerable time to police shootings and racial unrest nationwide. Given both candidates’ whopping negative numbers, let’s see if Holt has the moxie to push the two on why their engender such dislike.
Any Departures from the Norm? It’s the only debate not scheduled for October, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a surprise or two (has anyone heard from Julian Assange lately?).
As the more predictable of the two, Clinton may resort to a more tried-and-tested tactic like dropping a juicy opposition- research on her opponent the morning of the debate and forcing Trump to scramble on-air for a response.
Trump is the Uno card in this game. Let’s see if he uses that unpredictably to put Clinton on the spot. Trump could pledge not to appoint anyone to his administration who gave more than $1,000 to his campaign or party causes. He could take a vow of fundraising chastity, if elected, and challenge Clinton to do the same.
Or, he could take a page from the James K. Polk playbook: promise to step down, after one term, after addressing the nation’s various foreign, domestic and political challenges – again, asking Clinton if she’ll take the same one-term pledge.
Granted, that may be wishful thinking.
Then again, with these two going at it three times over the next month, is anything off the table?
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.