Expect hardball Monday night
Throw away your images of presidential debates -- the earnest exchanges over foreign policy and the economy, the canned laugh lines and scripted expressions of scorn, even the choreographed bonhomie at the beginning and end of these televised sessions. Monday night’s confrontation will reflect the disruptive forces in politics that each nominee personifies.
As a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton presents a different kind of profile than anything Americans have seen since presidential debates began in 1960. As an insurgent with no political experience and a freewheeling style, Donald Trump eschews preparation but comes armed with the sort of zingers that have no precedent in the 30 presidential debates that have set Americans’ expectations for these affairs.
One of the candidates will prepare feverishly, the other will not. One risks sounding scripted in an event that prizes spontaneity, the other risks sounding casual in an event that tests his presidential demeanor. One could err by allowing her rival to dominate the session the way he did against his Republican rivals, the other could err by appearing domineering or patronizing to a woman.
And both could err by seeming inauthentic -- too deliberately informal for her, too artificial and stilted for him.
A year’s worth of strategic thinking gets distilled into 90 minutes in a presidential debate -- a high-stakes confrontation before an entire nation that is primed, since the 1960 debates between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, to examine every nuance. In their first debate, Kennedy seemed confident and polished, Nixon uneasy and perspiring.
Americans had never seen anything like that 1960 debate; the only near precedent was the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but they were for a Senate seat in Illinois rather than for the presidency; they consisted of alternating speeches of 60, then 90 and finally 30 minutes; and the candidates appeared before audiences scattered around the state rather than being broadcast on television. Illinois residents reviewed transcripts of the exchanges, but there were no cable TV shows or tweets to air highlights or focus on stumbles or factual errors.
Trump has indicated he will stick with his freewheeling debate style rather than steep himself in preparation. The difference in approach will be immediately evident Monday.
Clinton likely will arrive with heaps of statistics and refined policy points that she can employ to her advantage -- or that can make her seem pedantic at an event designed to reveal personality and character. Trump’s cavalier preparation might make him seem authentic -- or unprepared for perhaps the most demanding job in the world.
Political scientists have found that debates seldom change minds; those who watch are more like sports fans than undecided voters, rooting for their team and coming down afterward pretty much where they started. But the audience for these debates may be so much bigger than usual, and the candidates so much a departure from form that historical examples may not apply.
“The question is whether Trump is graded on a curve,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist. “If people expect Clinton to wipe the floor with Trump and he avoids disastrous errors, people may think he won.” Clinton also will be graded on a curve; if she comes out unscathed after a Trump verbal attack, people may believe she won.
“Presidential debates are the best way people can actually learn something important about the candidates,” former candidate Walter Mondale said in an interview. “Most of what they hear otherwise is spin and bounce. History tells us these debates can be revealing.”
He knows this firsthand. In his second debate with Reagan, the 73-year-old president dismissed concerns about his age with a quip about the relative youth and inexperience of Mondale, then 56. “He answered what people were worried about -- whether he could still function,” Mondale said. “We realized then that the campaign was over.”