CRAWFORD | A sportswriter previews Clinton vs. Trump, the first Presidential Debate
Eric Crawford switches out of sports mode for a quick -- and attempted non-partisan -- look at Monday night's first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Politics has become a spectator sport in this country. Long ago, elections appropriated the language of sports (horse race, down the stretch, dark horse), so I have no problem returning the favor and diving into the political waters once in a while.
Why shouldn’t a sportswriter preview Monday night’s first presidential debate? The owner of the Dallas Mavericks, I hear, plans to sit in the front row. It’s taking place opposite Monday Night Football. That’s a pity, because I wouldn’t have minded hearing Sean McDonough moderate the thing.
That is, if there has to be a moderator at all. Inasmuch as a debate should be a discussion between the candidates, when there are only two on stage, the best moderators, like the best officials, are the ones you don’t notice.
But in a heavyweight bout such as we expect between Democratic party nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, you at least need some presence in the ring to prevent low blows, or -- to switch sports mid-sentence -- to throw the occasional flag.
A brief word about my own philosophy when writing about these kinds of subjects. I don’t take a side. Readers, in general, come to me for commentary on sports, and to escape the real world when they can. I respect that. We have a good thing going with that. I’m not going to ruin it by telling anyone what to think, or whom to vote for. There are enough folks who will do that, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Nor am I going to trash either candidate, or anyone who supports either candidate. We’re told that this election is a contest between the two least-liked major party candidates in history. The disapproval numbers lend credence to that. And yet, Hillary Clinton has been named, in an annual Gallup poll, the Most Admired Woman by the American public for each of the past 14 years, and 20 overall. No one else in the history of that survey -- which began in 1942 -- comes close. Eleanor Roosevelt was Most Admired Woman 13 times. Dwight Eisenhower was Most Admired Man 12 times. No one else is in double digits.
The Most Admired Man has been a sitting president every year since 1981. So the Most Admired Man by Americans last year was Barack Obama. But you might be interested in who finished second. Right there in the runner-up position, tied with Pope Francis, was Donald Trump. You can look it up.
Somebody likes these people. There was ample opportunity to not vote for them if they didn’t. I will, accordingly, treat them with respect here. If you’re looking to see somebody trashed, you’ll have no problem finding it. But you won’t find it here.
The topics for Monday’s first debate will be the following: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “America’s Security.” Moderator Lester Holt of NBC News will ask questions under those headings in a 90-minute debate with no commercial breaks. Each of those topics will get two 15-minute segments.
So let’s take a look at the two fighters, ah, candidates, and consider what each must do.
CLINTON. The first job for the former Secretary of State, U.S. senator and First Lady is to begin to demonstrate what she has argued forcefully on the campaign trail, that Trump is unfit to be president. She must attack from the opening tip. She must press Trump on his statements about women. She must press Trump on his immigration policy. She must press Trump on his statements about John McCain, and the Gold Star parents from the Democratic Convention. These areas hold more potential promise than attacking Trump on his foundation or attacking him on Trump University or birtherism. Those only open the door to counterattacks. Regardless, she needs to get him angry. He's a political street fighter, but in this forum, a street fight isn't likely to play all too well. More than this, she must question the direction he wishes to take the country; throw doubt upon the economic plans he has advanced, and challenge him to provide details on how he will provide more law and order than currently exists and how his plans regarding a border wall and radical terrorist groups will make the nation tangibly safer. She may want to attack his military statements, and has already spent a good bit of time attacking his business background and questioning not only the amount of his personal wealth, but how he amassed it. I expect more of the same.
In the end, it is not the primary job of the moderator to challenge candidates on facts. With Trump, that job will fall to Clinton -- if she wants it to be done to her satisfaction.
But her job is difficult because at the same time, she must find a way to connect with the American people. She famously asked, in a video speech to union members a week or so ago, “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” Well, there are several answers to that, but one of them is that she hasn’t provided that one accessible moment when Americans felt like they could connect with her. The moment she first walked onto the stage at the Democratic National Convention, after her daughter introduced her, when she appeared to quietly realize the magnitude of the moment and its history, is as close as she has come in this election cycle. But then she began her speech, and she isn’t Barack Obama. From a speaking standpoint, she isn’t even Michelle Obama. It isn’t her strength.
Finally, Clinton must also find a way to diffuse Trump’s inevitable attacks, particularly on her email problem, without sounding defensive. Her tone with Matt Lauer during an earlier Commander in Chief Forum wasn’t the tone she needed. She needs to project strength, both physically -- because the public will be watching her very closely after a recent health episode in public -- and from a standpoint of temperament.
If I were advising Clinton, I would tell her to take the first shot, to go on the attack, and try to sustain it. I would tell her not to worry about angering Trump, because the angrier he gets, the more likely he is to say something ill-advised. I would have her ready with personal anecdotes to humanize herself, rather than long policy riffs. Her most successful lines in her convention speech were well-crafted one liners at Trump’s expense, and I would update or reprise many of them.
When Trump presses her on her email issues, she should reiterate her statements of regret and apology, but note that the area of classified information and electronic communication was developing at the time and indeed best practices are still developing. When he attacks on Benghazi, she should express regret and apologies to the families, but attack the politicization of a tragic event, and point out that even policies or mistakes that resulted in the loss of American lives by past presidents prior to taking office weren’t seen as disqualifying. I might have her point out that she is respectfully asking of the American people only the consideration that they have given others to seek the office. Holding high office often means that decisions carry the threat of losing American lives, not just losing money.
I don’t think Clinton needs to underscore that she would be the first woman to win the Presidency. There may well be a time for that in other debates. But she does need to show voters something they haven’t yet seen of her. She needs to give them a moment of emotion, and not just anger at whatever Trump is saying. She should have taken great care in planning where her attacks will come. Attacking Trump for his Iraq war support (or for saying that he didn’t support it when she believes he did) might dent his credibility, but Clinton herself voted for the war, then later said she regretted it. She had access to military briefings. Trump was a private citizen. How much, in the end, her attacks damage Trump may well depend on which attacks she decides to launch. There are some winners, and some losers. She needs to choose wisely, to keep the fight on ground that is favorable to her. It’s a chess match.
TRUMP: If he is capable of striking a conversational tone with the viewers in the hall and across the nation, now is the time for that to happen. His first statement, if I were advising him, and regardless of what attacks may have come at him before speaking, would be something like this: “I know, standing here tonight, that I am unlike any candidate who has ever gotten this far seeking this office. I am not a politician. I don’t talk like a politician. I don’t act like one. And until a year or so ago, I didn’t think like one. Because of that, a great many things I have said and done don’t make sense to people, especially establishment politicians in my own party or the Democratic party. But I have to tell you this -- had I not shaken things up, I would not be standing here tonight. And it’s my intention, if elected, to shake up a political class in Washington that has grown fat and happy off of money from special interests. My hope is to kick-start this government out of gridlock, and it may require some tough talk and swift kicks, and it certainly will require some deal-making ability. Which is where my experience comes in. But make no mistake, I am the single greatest agent of change to win a major party nomination in our lifetime. If you want to change the way the American political class does business, I am your only choice, and I may be your only chance for a very long time.”
From that framework, he can deal with a great many attacks. If he is attacked on women, he can respond that he comes from a background of fighting back, and that when attacked, he’ll fire back at women as hard as he does at men, reiterating that he has acknowledged saying things he wished he had said differently, or not at all. If Hillary Clinton attacks him for lack of specificity or plans, he should fire back hard, “Politicians always want to talk about plans or specifics. Have you noticed how often their plans never come to pass? Have you noticed how the finished product doesn’t resemble what was described on the campaign trail?” In this way, by rebuffing her criticism by dismissing it as politics as usual, Trump may be able to sidestep her attacks, and fire back by aligning her with the status quo, and with establishment politics, or with other attacks as he sees fit to mount. At times, natural counterattacks may be available. If she continues a recent line of attack on the real amount of his wealth or his business failures, he might well fire back by noting that not everyone can go from dead broke when leaving the White House to earning $230 million over 15 years, and launch his own attack on corruption.
What Trump cannot do is become distracted by her criticisms, as he often did in Republican debates, which then lead him to overreach in reacting to them. That was fine in a race with many candidates. With just two, it’s not likely to be beneficial. Meanwhile, there are plenty of lines of attack open to him, and he should pursue them. The issues of this debate are tailor made for his talking points. The topic “America’s Security” allows him to attack her careless use of classified email and what he would depict as failed policies while she was Secretary of State, and to push his agenda for strengthening and modernizing the military and restoring morale, and for reforming immigration. He can refer to his desire to have constructive personal discussions with other world leaders, including Vladimir Putin of Russia. The topic, ‘Achieving Prosperity,’ allows him to pursue his populist line of striking better trade deals. And the topic, “America’s Direction,” ought to be the heading under which he tries to destroy her depictions of him as racist, and as a divider. He can attack her description of a segment of his followers as “deplorables” and highlight his own progress on having members of the LGBT community speak at the Republican convention. He should try to make the case that there is reason for thinking people who are concerned about the direction of the nation to support him.
On the question of immigration, in addition to “build the wall,” he would be well-served to talk about the importance of securing the nation’s border, then assessing the situation with illegal immigrants. Picking up on a theme of his campaign, and dovetailing with recent visits to inner-city neighborhoods, he should offer, “How can we offer hope to those who are not Americans if we are unwilling to offer hope to those who already are? We are taking refugees from around the world, but we are creating our own refugees in forgotten neighborhoods in our country.”
One of Trump’s most powerful messages has evolved in recent weeks, that the Democratic party has, over the past decades, failed the very poor people it claims to represent. He must establish that theme for a large nationwide audience here.
Finally, when concluding, Trump needs to cast his “Make America Great Again,” in a light that he defines. He needs to say that it doesn’t mean returning to the social injustice of the past, but returning the nation to some of the optimism of its past, restoring the American Dream, for all Americans, to the luster of its past, a luster it has lost through what he perceives as failed policies and failed government. And he needs to harken to a time when the government got moving, when it made deals and struck compromises and moved forward. He should reiterate that he is not politics as usual, that his route to this point may have been unusual and for some, even distasteful, but that if he crosses the line at times, he does so on behalf of the people, not at their expense.
I don’t know if Trump has that in him. One of Trump’s major weaknesses has been that he doesn’t articulate his own positions as well as he should. He needs to be calm and clear in this debate, even in the face of Clinton’s attacks. If he deflects them with a message that reinforces him as the outsider and agent of change, he can score points.
CONCLUSION: Both candidates have pretty well locked up their bases. They’re not going to change many minds. The goal is to appeal to that 8-10 percent of voters who may be on the fence, and, perhaps, to those Independent voters who turned to Trump in recent weeks but whose support might not be firm.
Otherwise, both sides will come out of the debate claiming victory, and supporters of each will follow suit and we’ll stagger along toward the finish line, or at least to the next debate.
Speaking of staggering, it’s possible that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ve tried my hand at writing “how the Kentucky Derby will be run” before the fact, and it never winds up bearing any resemblance to reality.
This is just how I see the debate, looking at how each side might best bring out its strengths while landing some blows on the other side. The paid political experts may have quite a different show in the works for us.
Regardless, history tells us that often the winning or losing of debates, or whether they have any significant impact on elections at all, can come down to small, unforeseen moments. Mitt Romney talking about “binders full of women.” Ronald Reagan telling Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.” Al Gore sighing loudly in reaction to George W. Bush. Any number of reactions to statements caught by cameras in cut-away shots. The Atlantic Monthly proposed that the best way to tell who won a debate is to watch it with the sound off. Given the tone of this campaign, that might not be a bad idea.
This much we should know: It won’t be boring. It should be far better theater than Monday Night Football. But unlike with football, I’m not going to try to predict a winner.
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