The Presidential Debates will be live a week from today at Hofstra University on Long Island and will predictably feature only Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with Libertarian Gary Johnson being excluded from the proceedings. It’s safe to say the nation has not been this excited to see corrupt septuagenarian New Yorkers on national TV since the first time “The Godfather” aired on HBO.
As the candidates started their prepping this past week for what should be, if nothing else, one of the more entertaining debates since they debuted in 1960, I decided that this column should start prepping for the gabfest as well by taking note of some things to look for when these two paragons of cronyism take the stage next week.
First, the moderator: Whoever is moderating plays an important role in any competition — a fact that anyone who witnessed the refs crush Southern this weekend knows — so let’s start with a look at the moderator for this debate (and contrary to the wishes of a certain Donald Trump, there will in fact be a moderator). For this first debate, the moderator is NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt. This will be his first time hosting a presidential debate and, interestingly enough, none of the moderators for the debates this election cycle have participated in a presidential debate before.
Now Holt is widely respected among journalist and television executives and has experienced a rapid rise to national prominence since replacing the disgraced Brian Williams as NBC’s primetime anchor a year and a half ago, with this inclusion being only the latest feather in his cap. Holt’s turn as a moderator is also a feather in the cap of NBC, as the network was shut out of the presidential debates in 2012 after the Romney campaign argued to the Commission on presidential debates that the network was too biased toward the Democrats to fairly moderate a debate. This foreshadowed the Clinton campaign arguing unsuccessfully that Fox News not be allowed to provide any moderators this year. (Fox News anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the third debate of this cycle in October.)
While NBC and its partner MSNBC are generally regarded as the most liberal of the media news outlets, Holt is widely seen as impeccable professional and it it’s doubtful that he will try and have a Meghan Kelly/Jorge Ramos moment with Trump. Even if he did directly engage the Donald, the mogul would likely only gain from that, as a key part of the Trump campaign has been its adversarial and confrontational relationship with the mainstream media during nationally televised events.
Second, let’s look at how the issues might affect this debate. There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the candidate who is the most prepared, most intelligent and most well-versed in policy on the stage. Likewise, there is little doubt that Trump will avoid specific policies, aside from his near-mythical wall.
However, it is not knowledge of the issues so much as which issues are discussed that should signal who is likely to emerge the perceived victor of this first debate. If national security, immigration, government classification protocols and crime are at the forefront of the discussion, look for Trump to be seen as doing well. If health care policy, financial regulation, diplomacy, racism and sexism are the top topics, then Clinton is probably going to be the most successful of the candidates. Presidential debates are not the format to try to get into the nitty gritty of policy, which hurts Hillary. However, they also can be massively damaging to the candidate who looks completely uninformed, which could potentially hurt the Donald.
Let’s be real, though: This is Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Policy is secondary to personality when these two are on the stage alone, and even more so when they appear opposite each other. Personality has always dominated the presidential debates, dating back to the days of JFK. However, that intangible quality will be more important than ever this year, with two of the most polarizing personalities in recent American history set to engage each other.
For Trump, the question is really if he will be able to maintain his in-control, unflappable, impossible-to-shame demeanor. If he can bait Clinton into a tit for tat insult exchange, bluster his way through her attempts to entangle him in policy conversations and dominate the stage and exchange using his big personality like he did during the Republican primary debates, he has a good chance of forcing a poor performance from Hillary. However, if the debate shifts from being about raw personality to nuanced policy or if the reality TV star keeps insulting the former Secretary of State, and she refuses to play that game, then Trump may be in for a long night.
For Clinton, the overriding factor is that she cannot allow herself to be flustered. This past week the media has talked and talked about how much experience Clinton has with debates and how helpful that will be for her when debating Trump.
I disagree. Hillary has done many debates; she has not done many debates well. When the pressure is on, she tends to get flustered, and if Trump can knock her off her game like then-president Obama did in 2008, things could get ugly quickly for the former New York senator. However, if Clinton can maintain her poise, cut Trump down without going down to his level and expose his lack of knowledge of basically anything policy- wise, she could very well coast to a win in this debate.
Perhaps it comes down to this: Trump’s asset is his supposed authenticity. Hillary’s weakness is her lack thereof. If she can make him look lost and inauthentic, she wins. If he can do the same to her, he wins.
Get your popcorn out, though, because no matter what happens, this will be a show.