The first presidential debates of the 2016 American election is tonight. By midnight we should have a pretty good idea as to who is going to top the ballot on November 8.
Usually my opinion on these things is that debates don’t really matter as long as you play a good defence. A politician doesn’t win a debate as much as avoid losing it. In Canada we have seen our share of defining campaign moments in debates (“You had a choice sir, you could have said ‘no.'”) but those are rare. Offhand I don’t remember anything politically fatal emerging from an American debate, not even Mitt Romney with his binders full of women.
Tonight though I think will be different as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton square off against each other for the first time. This one actually matters. Trump, as a television personality might have a natural advantage. This is his milieu, the medium that has made him a viable (though not credible) presidential candidate despite his multitudinous shortcomings.
For Trump tonight the key is to act presidential. Be calm, cool, collected and on point. Talk about substantive policy issues. Calmly explain his more contentious proposals, like limited immigration and building a wall at the Mexican border. Make them sound reasonable and rational. Show those who have written him off as a racist, misogynist demagogue that there is more substance to him than they would have believed possible.
While doing that he also needs to calmly lay out why his Democratic opponent is unfit to be president. Emphasis there on calmly. Hillary Clinton is distrusted by almost as many people as distrust Donald Trump – and for the same reasons. Neither of them seems to have more than a nodding acquaintance with the concept of truth. Not surprising for a politician perhaps, but it seems these two specimens are worse than average.
If Trump can sow doubts about Clinton’s suitability, her past policies, her platform and even her health (which became a legitimate campaign issue earlier this month when her campaign chose to conceal her pneumonia), then he vaults ahead in the polls. Mind you, the popular vote isn’t as important as the Electoral College, so that popularity may not guarantee a win. But the news articles I have read indicate Trump’s popularity is growing in the states he needs to win.
For Hillary Clinton to win the election all she has to do is goad Trump into behaving like Donald Trump. You can only go so far as a bombastic racist misogynist – and it is easier to pull off when people are looking elsewhere. Tonight though they will be focused. Election Day is only a few weeks away. The undecided voters are beginning to make up their minds.
Clinton is a known commodity. She may be disliked, she may be distrusted, people may not like her policies, but she is respected. (Trump fans may disagree with that statement.) In order to win she needs not to rise to Trump’s bait. Possibly the best thing she could do is laugh at him, though there are risks in doing that.
To win she has to convince Americans she understands and empathizes with the emotions they feel. She has to let them know that the fears they have, about jobs, the economy, terrorism and world affairs are not only real to them but real to her. She needs to point out that Trump is all rhetoric and no substance. She has to be that substance. She doesn’t need to be particularly likeable (Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper won three elections as the least likeable party leader), she just needs to come across as the best choice.
If she can somehow make Trump lose his cool, looking like the best choice shouldn’t be too hard.