I will probably watch tonight’s presidential debate. I have no idea who will win, but I think the prognosticators, tea-leaf readers, and the Very Serious Pundit corps will say that Donald Trump will win if he shows up and doesn’t step on a rake or go off like a Nuremberg rally. Hillary Clinton has the tougher job in that she has to deliver a message over the heads of both her opponent and the chattering commentariat waiting to pounce.
I’m not a strategist so I’m not going to offer any advice, but I think Greg Sargent is on the right track.
Clinton can win if she displays more knowledge and competence than Trump, and if she shows that she takes the debates more seriously than Trump does — while simultaneously taking steps herself to remind the audience of Trump’s erratic judgment and temperament and track record of bigotry, hate speech and all-around abusiveness.
Indeed, allow me to suggest one possible way all this might go. Serious, Sedate Trump appears on Monday night, and manages to remain present throughout. Commentators gush about how he “defied expectations.” Meanwhile, Clinton gets a message out to the voters that she is nonetheless far more prepared for the presidency than Trump is, while simultaneously reminding them herself in some detail about the Unhinged Trump they already know so well. Commentators don’t register that happening, or at least give it short shrift amid their zeal to declare that Trump cleared the bar that they themselves set at floor-level for him. But the voters do register it.
I’m not necessarily predicting a uniformly winning performance from Clinton. She’ll struggle under tough questioning about her emails, the Clinton Foundation, and so forth. No doubt many Dems are also hoping Clinton takes major steps to make herself more likeable, and it’s anyone’s guess whether she’ll succeed at that. I’m simply suggesting that, whatever the commentariat concludes about the outcome, the public’s ultimate verdict on it will not hinge on whether Trump manages to “defy expectations” by avoiding efforts to bait him into being unhinged, or by meeting an arbitrary pundit-generated minimal standard of knowledge and seriousness.
Oh, and if Donald Trump follows through with his middle-school spitball fight tactic of inviting Gennifer Flowers, the woman Bill Clinton had an affair with some thirty years ago, to sit in the front row, I think it would be very nice if Ms. Clinton smiled and said, “Why, hello, Gennifer. How’s tricks?”