Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
The first debate will be tough for Hillary Clinton. The starting point is a perception that her opponent Donald Trump will implode under pressure. He won’t. His experience of the highly stylized and scripted television production that US presidential debates have become will ensure a decent showing. And he’ll be lauded for it.
Worse still for Mrs Clinton, the media will report that she failed to land a knockout blow. That will be a mark against her, even though no candidate in recent memory has been credited with a knockout blow. Even Joe Biden’s smiling annihilation of Sarah Palin in the 2008 Vice Presidential debate lacked a knockout blow according to the media. (The media’s failed to land a knockout blow verdict is a pet peeve of Election Debates.)
So what can Mrs Clinton do? How can she win this debate given pre-debate perceptions and likely media analysis will work against her? In the first of two-part series (tomorrow Trump) we consider three things that Mrs Clinton must do to in the first presidential debate.
The obvious thing: Crystallize her vision for America
In this debate Mrs Clinton must communicate a simple, compelling vision for America’s future. We got a taste of it during the Democratic National Convention where Mrs Clinton stressed America’s power and potential when its citizens come together. A message of unity and purpose becomes even more important for Mrs Clinton after her deplorables gaffe.
The importance of a compelling vision, clearly communicated is the necessary rebuttal to Mr Trump’s clever ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign. He can rouse anger and division; she must do the opposite. Mrs Clinton’s Convention speech pivoted effectively between her positive, inclusive vision and the extreme risks posed by a Trump presidency. She’ll need to do that again.
The tricky thing: Get the positive / negative balance right
For better or worse, Mrs Clinton is saddled with the record of the incumbent president, both because she’s a Democrat, and because she was an executive in the Obama Administration.
That leaves her with a tricky three-part challenge given the limited speaking times in these debates. First, she has to defend President Obama and his (sometimes, their) record. Second, she has to attack Mr Trump. Third, she has to offer a plan for the future. A mixture of negative and positive arguments. She did these three things well in her Convention speech, but she had one uninterrupted hour to make her pitch.
Doing these three things in the two-minute blocks stipulated by the rules will be difficult. It will require economy of words, careful emphasis to highlight key points and clear signposting and numbering of arguments (so the audience feels a sense of order amidst the maelstrom).
One other approach Mrs Clinton may adopt is to return to key themes within each of these three tasks: defending Obama’s by focussing on his post-George W Bush repair job, attacking Mr Trump’s by focussing on his flip flopping and volatility and and setting out a plan for the future that refers to her inclusive (while adding the detail that is likely to be absent from the Trump pitch).
The left-field thing: Quote Trump, word for word, and quote others
What Mr Trump says can be utterly nonsensical and widely inconsistent. Yet we are so conditioned to his off-piste delivery style and the lapping waves of insults, distortions and assertions that his actual arguments and words lose impact.
When Mr Trump’s words are delivered by someone other than him, they sound patently absurd. Mrs Clinton should quote him, word for word, as often as possible. This tactic is rarely used in presidential debates, but it needs to be deployed here. Separated from his breathless and disjointed manner, his actual words highlight his wildly fluctuating positions (translation: don’t trust him), his unrealistic promises and policies (translation: don’t trust him) and his volatility (translation: don’t trust him).
Mrs Clinton should also quote others on Mr Trump. From his Art of the Deal ghost writer Tony Schwartz, to former Republican and Democrat Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, to the many small business people Mt Trump has trampled along the way. Bringing others’ voices into the debate could be an effective tactic to manage voters’ dislike and distrust of the Democratic candidate.
This will be a challenging debate for Mrs Clinton. Much will be revealed after it. Let’s hope the media reports on the candidates’ arguments and policies and doesn’t get sucked into the soap opera that has become the 2016 US presidential election.