Ex­pect hard­ball Mon­day night

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­man@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG. David Shrib­man Colum­nist

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.”

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