Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
Yesterday we published a piece on the three things Hillary Clinton should do in the first presidential debate. That was a relatively easy piece to write. Not because her task is easy, but because her approach to debates is more conventional. The Clinton-Sanders Democratic primary debates had substantive points of difference (rare in primary debates) and were argued intelligently, forcefully and with evidence.
Mr Trump’s situation is different. Through the Republican primary debates, his favoured approach was to attack his opponents personally and to speak in largely rhetorical manner. When he did weigh into policy issues, he chose to argue against a person not in the same room (President Obama). These were non-debates.
In writing this piece we are quite aware that our approach would likely be at odds with the purpose, nature and values of the Trump campaign to date. Nevertheless, we’ll stake out higher ground, to argue how he could approach this debate.
The obvious thing: own the spotlight, look presidential
There’s no presidential candidate who has had as much experience of highly stylized television productions as Donald Trump. And make no mistake, these presidential debates are much more a slick television production than they are a contest of ideas.
Mr Trump should be able to own the stage. The hair, swagger and volatility are just three elements of the package that keeps people looking his way. Yet he needs to project something presidential to accompany the narrowing polls. A presidential debate before 80m people is a key moment in that pitch.
How do candidates look presidential? Mr Trump’s sheer presence will help. He needs to reign in his chaotic rhetoric slightly – not so much that he becomes unrecognisable – but enough to convey authority and clarity of thought, and even some poise.
The tricky thing: keep the anger flowing, while seeming presidential
While Mr Trump must stake his claim and seem presidential, he must at the same time maintain the rage – a tricky balance. The people who have championed his rise don’t want him to suddenly become moderate. They want to shake up the establishment and bizarrely, have latched onto a man born into millions and shrouded in financial mystery.
Mr Trump will be hoping he can ride that emotion to the first Tuesday in November, and continue to obscure the stark financial and diplomatic realities of the Trump vision. We know from Brexit that emotion can overcome reason. The unpleasant legislative and financial realities that the UK Government now faces as it negotiates an exit from the European Union were known to all in advance. Yet these warnings (from government, business and academia) were ignored by a large number of disaffected voters, who then turned out in large numbers to vote.
Mr Trump can manage this tricky balance by finding the raw nerve in every issue (to raise the ire of voters) while steering clear, to the extent possible, from personal attacks (to maintain a presidential disposition).
The left-field thing: introduce some detail to match the rhetoric
Mr Trump has made some seriously ambitious proposals with minimal policy detail. The First Presidential Debate would be a great moment, before 80m people, to buck the perception that he has no policy command and no detail behind his rhetoric.
Even if the detail he can offer at this point is quite limited, he has the fall back security of knowing that each speaking block cannot exceed two minutes. It’s enough time for him to expand beyond pure assertion and provide something more appealing for the undecided voter. Tactically, he could follow President Obama’s approach in the 2008 debates, to clearly enumerate and signpost his specific ideas on any given issue. Perhaps it’s easier said than done, and it may be that Mr Trump is fundamentally unsuited to this approach.
The debate will be interesting, and slightly unpredictable. Mr Trump will do well enough for one simple reason: these aren’t real debates, they’re scripted, stylised television productions. Less like the taxing Kennedy-Nixon showdowns, more like The Apprentice.