The debate tonight presents Donald Trump with a difficult problem, made much harder by the recent revelations of the way he treats women. Usually the second presidential debate is a less anticipated event with fewer viewers than the first because people have a sense that they no know the candidates. But the Trump revelations have fueled great anticipation about how he will react and we may see a huge audience, even larger than the record breaking first.
Trump’s rabid supporters are slavering at the thought that he will unleash vicious attacks on Hillary Clinton and personal attacks on her husband, something that did not happen in the previous two debates. So should he go the full Trump and give the usual rambling, bragging, insult-heavy performance that his followers at his rallies love? Or should he risk making them furious and instead try to impress the media commentariat with a restrained performance focused largely on policy, thus garnering the favorable reviews that Mike Pence got, even though Pence is an extremist who lied blatantly and repeatedly? The latter approach is the kind of thing that is considered appropriate for the town hall format. But if he does hold back, his rabid base will be furious, thinking that he is wimping out, a cardinal sin in their eyes.
I think that there is little doubt that he will go with the aggressive strategy despite the adverse town hall format hat is not conducive to belligerence. Even if his head (and his advisors) tell him to take the more restrained option, I don’t think he can. His whole personality is vested in being the dominant person and he is probably seething at having been put on the defensive. Furthermore his impulse control is poor even when he is reading off a teleprompter, which he has increasingly depended upon at recent events. In the debate, he will not have a script in front of him and I just cannot see him avoid wandering off into riffs where he vents his spleen.
Even with friendly crowds at town halls like this one in New Hampshire a couple of days ago before the latest scandal broke, he found it hard to stay on topic. Here, in response to a question from someone who has graduated from college but cannot get a job, he first rambles about the heat in the room, then says that under him the big companies will start making things in the US, then rambles on about Bernie Sanders for a while, and then comes back again to saying that under his presidency companies will bring back jobs. There was nothing about what he will do to ensure that happens.
Furthermore, to the extent that Trump thinks strategically at all, he has to know that he is losing and must shake up the race if he is to have a chance of getting back in it. So I expect him, despite the difficulties of the town hall format, to be hyper-aggressive. The Clinton camp is reportedly preparing for such an all-out assault, though I am at a loss as to what the best response might be. Get down and dirty with Trump and attack him back? Or take the high road, largely ignore his attacks as that of a desperate loser, and stick to issues with the occasional needling, a strategy that worked so well for her in the first debate? I think the latter would be the better course since you cannot beat Trump at the personal insult game.