2016: The Presidential Debates to End All Presidential Debates

2016: The Presidential Debates to End All Presidential Debates

2016: The Presidential Debates to End All Presidential Debates

I can sympathize with anyone who just wants this election to be over. It feels like it has been going on all our lives, and there are still two months to go. But there is one thing I am excited about that hasn’t happened yet – maybe the only really fun we could possibly squeeze out of the rest of this 550-day slog to the 2016 election. That is the upcoming presidential debates – they will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Since Nixon-Kennedy in 1960, the debates have featured watershed moments in election after election. Who would look good, who would sound smarter, or cooler under fire? Who would be crushed with some one-liner, doomed to be a punchline for the rest of their lives? You find out at the debates. In fact, the debates have become so important, that they’ve been reduced to a science. Professional gurus prepare the candidates, leading politicians stand-in for opponents at marathon practice sessions. The headliners take days off to prepare, wading through reams of their adversary’s prior statements and speeches, memorizing their talking points and anticipating the moderator’s questions. The stakes are four years in the White House, a personal 747, and a nice title: “leader of the free world.” Four years ago, two of the most disciplined, intelligent, and professional debaters ever to contest the Presidency went at it. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had many differences, but they were both the kind of man who does his homework and shows up ready to play. Each performed brilliantly in one of the first two debates – Romney dominating the opener, and Obama staging an Ali-like comeback in round two. Jamie Bordas and I covered them in painstaking detail on the Bordas & Bordas Legal Review. It may be many years before we see two debaters that prepared and that skilled again. It certainly will not be what we see this year. This year, we have a matchup unlike any other. Trump v. Clinton will be an unprecedented event, in which the prior rules do not apply, and where the lessons of debates past will be worthless. Make fun if you want, but I am going to tailgate for these debates. Some early thoughts on the matchup: Hillary Clinton should be one of the easiest debaters to prepare for in history. She has a record almost twenty-five years long in public life. Her positions on the issues are known quantities that anyone can learn. The questions she’s had difficulty answering can easily be gleaned from hundreds of hours of interviews on TV and even before Congress. She has many strengths that got her to this point, but simulating credibility in a tricky spot and being lightning-quick on her feet are not among them. For the professional preparers, she’s a dream opponent. Naturally then, Trump has decided not to prepare. Clinton is known for doing her homework, so she will be as ready as anyone, but she has her work cut out for her. Trump presents unique challenges never before seen in presidential politics. Most politicians hate to deviate from what they’ve said before, or to change their positions – that’s the dreaded “flip-flop.” That’s why it’s easier to prepare for them – you know what they’re going to say. Trump has shown no hesitation in changing his positions to suit the moment. He was going to deport eleven million illegal immigrants with a “deportation force,” then we were only going to deport those who committed violent crimes (the Obama policy), then next it was: “they all have to go, before they can come back.” That’s a preparation nightmare because there are arguments and criticisms that apply to all three positions, but you don’t know which one you’ll get, or if Trump will slip away like an agile boxer and say you are attacking a position he doesn’t really hold. But even more challenging are Trump’s rhetorical moves that he’s used throughout the campaign to throw off his Republican opponents and skilled journalists. He says something without really saying it with “many people are saying . . .” He gives an answer that has no content but he delivers it like it does, “the best people will come up with a great plan and people will be very happy with it. Believe me.” He takes people off-guard by doubling down on indefensible positions, like his praise of brutal dictator Vladimir Putin. Trump is a master of changing the subject, usually back to himself, when he wants to get on track. Even when contradicting himself, or known facts, he speaks with absolute certainty and rarely backs down – putting pressure on his competitors, or the moderators, to either call him a liar to his face, or accept his statements and move on. And he uses insults and humor throughout his performance which makes him enjoyable to watch even for people who would never vote for him – that’s the odd charisma that has made him a successful reality TV star. How does Clinton prepare for that? Let me think about it and get back to you.