The debate circus comes to town

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is due to take place on Monday, September 26. These are not debates in any real sense of the word but more like joint press conferences where occasional direct exchanges break out. The target audience for these debates is neither the people in the auditorium nor those watching at home or even the moderators asking the questions. Instead it is the talking heads who will, immediately following the event, blanket the airwaves for the next week or so, giving us their verdict about who won and who lost.

There will be a greater contrast between these two candidates in terms of style than we will have ever seen. On the one hand, Clinton is a policy wonk who pays close attention to detail and is cautious in her words. Trump on the other hand is almost Palineque in his ignorance and carelessness with which he speaks and throws around charges and makes statements that have little basis in reality, though he is not as grammatically and syntactically challenged as she is.

There is no doubt that Clinton is smart and hardworking while Trump is shrewd but lazy. According to Eric Levitz and many other media reports, Trump cannot be bothered to prepare for the debates, a combination of his intellectual laziness plus his desire to lower expectations for his performance and to explain away his ignorance. Bob Cesca says that the debates may finally kill off the Trump campaign.

It’s perhaps the most highly anticipated presidential match-up in the history of televised debates, and Donald Trump has chosen not to engage in the usual process of holding mock debates or studying briefing books.

Trump is readying himself for another game show, and such an approach will likely hammer the final nail in his political coffin.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is doing exactly the right kind of homework. According to the New York Times, Clinton is consulting with Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter on “The Art of the Deal,” in order to tap into Trump’s deepest insecurities, namely “his intelligence, his net worth and his image as a successful businessman.” The idea, we can assume, is to bait Trump into saying something obnoxious or damning, while also seizing the initiative against Trump, who will surely pull no punches.

But I am not at all sure about this. There have been many similar predictions of such moments in the past but his campaign seems vampire-like in its ability to survive and even thrive.

The differences between Clinton and Trump, which in ordinary debates would result in a slam-dunk win for Clinton, are not that relevant in this context. The supposed strengths that Clinton has will actually work against her. The slightest slip that she makes will be highlighted as a major gaffe while there will be a collective shrug of the shoulders at Trump’s blunders. Any flash of temper or indication of arrogance on her part will be harshly criticized while Trump’s boorishness and crudity will be treated as part of his ‘style’.

One thing she cannot do is out-insult Trump. He is a master at that game and indeed that is what has got him so far. Marco Rubio’s attempt to take him down using those same techniques failed spectacularly. What she may need to do is treat Trump with amused condescension. She could take a leaf from two Republicans. Ronald Reagan’s repeated use of “There he goes again” against Jimmy Carter enabled him to imply that Carter was saying something wrong without actually having to say what it was. The other example is Chris Christie doing something similar in the primaries to Rubio by pointing out his pattern of robotic repetition and also saying “There he goes again”. In that case he was aided by Rubio immediately providing proof of the charge.

Clinton could use a similar phrase, delivered in a calm but amused tone, whenever Trump goes off on his filibustering tangents. This will undoubtedly get under Trump’s skin. His ego demands that he be the dominant personality and to be treated with mild amusement as one would humor a child will infuriate him, especially because she is a woman and he is a chauvinist bordering on misogyny.

How much these debates actually change voters’ minds is not clear. These are not debates so much as exercises in optics and media manipulation. Winning the media battle gives a psychological boost to the campaign that is seen as coming out on top. As I said in an earlier post, I am already fed up with the election and do not expect to learn anything from the debates but will still watch them out of a sense of civic obligation and to observe the dynamics.

Seth Meyers looks at the debate preparation of both candidates.


  1. KG says

    he is not as grammatically and syntactically challenged as she is

    Really? I admit I haven’t listened to Trump much -- not generally being in need of an emetic -- but the transcripts of his utterances suggest he is scarcely able to produce a complete sentence.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I’m also worried about the debates. I used to think that they would be a great opportunity for Clinton to show off her deep understanding of issues, policies, and world affairs, compared to Trump’s vast ignorance on all subjects (including real estate, as far as I can tell). However, Trump seems to have mastered the art of memorizing a handful of statistics and stating them confidently as if that makes him an expert, without knowing or caring whether anything that comes out of his mouth has any grounding in reality. The voters don’t seem to care either way — they don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between facts and bs. That makes her challenge a lot more difficult.

    What I think she needs to do is the same thing she does in her ads — call him on his BS. She could directly ask him some of the questions that the press won’t. “Mr. Trump, you keep saying you were against the Iraq war, yet on [date] you told Howard Stern you supported it. What did you mean?” “Mr. Trump, you just said ‘[X],’ but on [date] you said ‘[exact opposite of X].’ Which version should we believe?” Her debate prep should be to memorize quotes and dates of things he’s said, and throw them back at him. In other words, since he’s been on both sides of every issue, force him to debate himself.

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