Unlike previous years, the first debate of US presidential candidates will be much more about clashing personalities than policies, writes Bette Browne
THE first US presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump will be an epic contest that will be won or lost based on their ability to have done their homework and to keep their cool.
Unlike presidential debates in previous years, which focused primarily on competing policies, Monday’s encounter will be much more about clashing personalities.
Clinton is used to debating powerful male opponents but for Trump, it will be the first time he has debated a woman as his sole adversary on a political stage and this alone could throw him off balance and make for a more volatile encounter.
It’s also going to be much tougher for him to debate one-on-one for 90 minutes instead of fielding just a few questions when he was one of over a dozen candidates in the Republican primary debates.
Neither is Clinton, as evidenced by her “basket of deplorables” offensive, going to hold back as many of Trump’s rivals did during the Republican primaries.
On the contrary, after her recent illness, she will be particularly anxious to demonstrate her stamina and steel and will focus on him like a laser beam.
If she can keep that beam on his temperament and lack of political experience and away from her own personal shortcomings, she’s more likely to get the upper hand.
Trump, too, will come well prepared. “I know how to handle Hillary,” he frequently boasts and since he’s unlikely to fare well against her on policy issues this can only mean he will concentrate on going after her personally — and ruthlessly.
While she may be sorely tempted to get down in the gutter with him, that’s where he usually wins and where she is almost certain to lose. Instead, she would do well to adopt Michelle Obama’s mantra “when they go low, you go high”.
Trump will also relish projecting himself as an outsider with fresh solutions and Clinton as an establishment Washington insider. Neither will he be that concerned about policy details or the veracity of his promises.
But while that might have played well at his rallies, polls show that as the election nears voters are saying that qualifications for the job count too and they may be looking in the debates for the candidate who has the best grasp of issues.
A Quinnipiac University poll found 66% of likely voters believed Clinton is “qualified” to be president, while only 40% said the same about Trump.
But the flamboyant businessman will certainly come to the debates in bullish mood, emboldened by a narrowing in national polling and a sharp tightening of the race in key swing states.
Since his new campaign team took over last month, he has also become more disciplined and tends to stay on message with the help of a teleprompter. But without any props for the debate, he may find the going far more difficult and may become easily rattled by Clinton.
One thing is certain: this bizarre election is about to see debates that will be full of surprises as both candidates aim for knockout punches.
Irish audiences will have to set their clocks for 2am to watch Monday’s debate. It will run without commercial breaks from 2am to 3.30am Irish time Tuesday [9pm to 10.30pm US time Monday].
It will be broadcast live on major US TV networks including ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as on cable news channels like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. It is also scheduled to be shown on BBC and on Sky News.
The 90-minute debate will be divided into six time segments of 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator.
The second debate, also at 2am Irish time, on October 9 will be a “town hall” style meeting. Both candidates will answer a series of questions — half from the audience and half from a moderator — with answers limited to two minutes. The moderator will use a further minute per topic for additional discussion.
The questions will be based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources and the questioners will be uncommitted voters selected by Gallup.
The third and final debate, again at 2am Irish time, will be on October 19, just three weeks before election day on November 8. It will have six 15-minute sessions devoted to different political topics.
There will also be a vice presidential debate on October 4 [also at 2am Irish time] between Clinton’s running mate Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Trump’s running mate, Indiana’s Republican Governor Mike Pence. It will be divided into nine time segments of 10 minutes each, covering major domestic and foreign policy issues.
Before Clinton (68) and Trump (70) even begin to debate, it will be worth watching whether they decide to stand or sit for the 90 minutes.
They may do a bit of both because standing for the full 90 minutes, regardless of the state of one’s health, would be tough and probably ill advised. But it’s entirely possible, given Clinton’s recent illness, that Trump will make a point of standing throughout the encounter.
WHY DEBATES ARE CRUCIAL
The debates are the last hurdles in the race and if either candidate falters, particularly in the first encounter, it could dramatically tilt the contest in the other’s favour.
Elections are rarely won in debates but both candidates know that their campaigns can be derailed or fatally doomed during the encounter. Many voters will be tuning into the debates to take their first close-up look at the candidates so the encounter on Monday and the subsequent two debates in October will be crucial in winning over uncommitted voters.
The debates are expected to be watched by about 100 million US viewers and millions more worldwide, with Monday’s contest set to attract the largest television audience ever for a US political event.
The first televised presidential debate in 1960 had a major impact on the outcome of the race between Democrat John F Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon.
When Nixon was shown perspiring and edgy in contrast to Kennedy’s cool demeanour, it was said to have cost the Republican the election.
In this debate if either Clinton or Trump blink first under pressure, the political consequences could be fatal with only weeks to go to recover before the November 8 election.
In a poll earlier this month, 53% of likely voters said that Clinton will outperform Trump in the debates and 43% said the Republican nominee would win.
US President Barack Obama faced even higher expectations about his debate performances in 2008 and 2012. In both races about 60% said the president would outperform his rival. As it turned out, it was tougher going for him than expected.
In Monday’s debate, therefore, both campaigns will be aiming to lower expectations so that a half decent performance for their candidate can be cast as a tour de force.
Clinton’s aides are already trying to raise the bar for Trump, insisting that his years on reality television and his winning performance in the Republican primary debates make him a formidable opponent.
Some previous presidential debates have produced short-term swings in the polls. In the 2012 race, for example, Republican nominee Mitt Romney briefly took the lead over President Obama after what was judged to be a strong first debate.
But often those effects don’t last very long. Sometimes a debate bounce will just fade or sometimes it will be cancelled out by a strong subsequent debate that helps the other candidate.
And in some years, the person judged to be the “winner” of the debates doesn’t get much of a bounce. This happened in 2004 when polls showed voters thought John Kerry won all three debates but President George W Bush remained in the lead.
Still, in most of these past debates, the candidates have been mainstream politicians whereas Trump doesn’t remotely fit into this category. So if he manages to hold his own against one of America’s most experienced politicians, he could see a big boost in his poll numbers coming out of the contests.
Substance matters but so does style, especially in a televised debate. While one candidate might throw what looks like a killer punch, it would be for naught if the other candidate manages to react with a stylish counter punch.
Clinton sees her rival as narcissistic and egocentric and will tap into both characteristics to try to needle him.
Her advisers are believed to be talking to Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s book The art of the deal, for insights into the candidate’s insecurities so that they can come up with ways in which she could rattle or provoke him.
Clinton is also aware that the billionaire businessman likes people to be deferential and uncritical towards him so she will ruthlessly highlight his lack of political experience, the fraud allegations surrounding the real estate courses at his self-styled
Trump University and questions about his failure to release his tax returns.
“She feels like it is a proving ground, that this is a job interview,” according to her spokesman Brian Fallon.
“I think she will approach the debate with a great deal of seriousness and a sense of purpose, and also keenly aware that Donald Trump is capable of anything.” Trump, on the other hand, will be hoping to get her to lose her cool and play dirty in the encounter.
He’ll focus relentlessly on questions about her judgment and trustworthiness, the email saga, Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation dealings and he’s said to be practising one-liners about these issues that he hopes will stick.
Indeed, his unpredictable, freewheeling style in which anything is fair game, including name-calling, was what helped him to win the Republican primary debates.
But a similar approach against Clinton will not work in his favour if he’s perceived as too aggressive or bullying. Both candidates will have a very fine line to walk but the challenge will probably be greater for the bombastic billionaire.
Viewers will also be tuning into Monday’s debate to catch any “gotcha” moment.
They will be watching to see whether Trump will pull a stunt and say something so outrageously offensive that the nation cringes on Clinton’s behalf or whether she will entrap him so that he displays a fatal ignorance of some key national or international issue and scares off voters.
They will be watching closely, too, to see if Clinton comes across as arrogant or whether she will lose her cool if goaded by Trump and get into an unseemly fight so that both end up looking temperamentally unsuited for the job and the moderator is left fighting to restore calm.
The two other debates, on October 9 and 19, will also be vital but the first contest is shaping up as the toughest hurdle for both candidates to clear and whatever emerges from it will shape the final weeks of the race.
After the first debate, they could be left digging in or digging out in the two subsequent contests.
Trump, however, doesn’t need to do that much to be seen as successful in the debates. The bar is going to be set not just lower for him but just above the bottom rung and if he doesn’t fall below that he will come out of it with some positive reviews.
If he can remain in the ring with Clinton for the full 90 minutes without showing panic and demonstrate some grasp of domestic and foreign policy issues, he will win plaudits. It’s going to be very different for her.
She will come into the ring as a skilled debater, so immediately the bar will be set just under the top rung for her and if she falls below that she will be perceived as performing badly.
That, coupled with any show of arrogance or condescension, could leave her fighting against the odds to recover.
Her biggest challenge will be to maintain a cool demeanour and a polite tone and not rise to any bait. If the contest gets too nasty, she will lose and he will win. But if she handles it well, it will boost her and backfire on him.
HOW THEY WILL ATTACK
They will put national security and the fight against Isis centre stage, with each portraying the other as ill-prepared for the task of keeping America safe from attacks like those earlier this week in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota.
Trump is also certain to raise issues like the Clinton Foundation and her emails and the fatal attack at Benghazi, Libya, during Clinton’s term as secretary of state.
He will pummel her perceived trust deficit and cast her as representing a continuation of the old order in Washington. He may also suggest she doesn’t have the physical stamina for the job in view of her illnesses.
While she will undoubtedly be able to talk up her domestic plans, like helping families pay for college education and raising the minimum wage, as well as her foreign policies, he could manage to rile her so that she drops the ball and makes an embarrassing mistake, giving him the upper hand.
For her part, Clinton will zone in on his lack of experience and say he doesn’t have the temperament for the job or the steel to handle national or foreign crises.
She will cite his demagogic statements about immigrants and minorities and say he is fostering a climate that is encouraging extremists, like the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, and stirring fear, racism and bigotry that represents the opposite of the inclusive America she wants to build.
She will also take a swipe at the credentials of the campaign team he installed last month, particularly Steve Bannon, who is widely described as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, because of his ruthless tactics and advocacy of far-right positions on a range of social issues.
Trump will fire back that she is insulting and belittling his supporters by having called half of them “deplorables”, which she defined as people who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”
She will suggest the tax breaks he’s pushing will favour the wealthy and that he wants to abolish the 40% inheritance tax so that billionaire families like his own can save millions.
He will tout his economic plan to create 25 million jobs over a decade, based on the premise that his tax cuts will boost growth to 4%, or double the rate at which the economy is now growing.
She is likely to dismiss this again as “magical thinking” and a throwback to the “trickle down economics” discredited in the Reagan era.
She will hound him for policy details and hope to expose his weaknesses but she will have to be careful in the process not to get bogged down herself or garner sympathy for him.
HOMEWORK WILL COUNT
When it comes to having done homework, it would be a mistake for Clinton to underestimate her opponent.
Despite reports to the contrary, Trump and his team led by Bannon and abetted by a master of media skills, the former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, have been spending a lot of time preparing him for the debates.
Ailes, who left the Fox network after sex harassment allegations earlier this year, began spending more time advising Trump on debate skills in recent weeks, along with the third unofficial member of the team, conspiracy theorist Roger Stone.
Stone paints the following scenario if Clinton wins the White House: “If Hillary wins, we’re done as a nation. We’ll be overrun by hordes of young Muslims, like Germany and France, raping, killing, violating, desecrating,” he told the Financial Times.
The Bannon-Ailes-Stone trio has been fuelling a negative narrative about Clinton for decades and they now seem to have found the perfect vehicle in Trump and are carefully honing his skills for Monday’s encounter.
Clinton is always well prepared but she is not always adept at handling the unexpected and Trump will certianly be an unpredictable opponent.
She knows he relishes showmanship and understands far better than she does the wily ways of television and how to exploit them adroitly.
That unpredictability will be one of his strengths going into the debate and could unnerve her. He tends to say what he wants and is cavalier with the truth.
He could either throw personal insults or adopt a more measured approach and then pounce when least expected, catching her off guard.
Clinton started prepping weeks ago by devouring policy briefing materials compiled by her teams and has had a number of mock debate sessions.
Trump is said to have done most of his prep at weekends over barbeques, testing one-liners that might be useful in the debate.
“I believe you can prep too much for those things,” Trump has said. “It can be dangerous. You can sound scripted or phony — like you’re trying to be someone you’re not.” That may well be but Ailes in particular, who has coached presidents going back to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, has been drilling him hard on debating techniques.
Opposition research teams hunting down embarrassing material have also been on overdrive in both camps and may have unveiled a number of surprises for the candidates to deploy during the debates.
MOST EXPLOSIVE ISSUES
The candidates’ charitable family foundations will provide plenty of fodder for attacks.
Clinton will need to be able to handle questions about whether her family’s foundation may have influenced her actions as secretary of state, during which time she used a private server for some of her emails.
Questions about her emails have continued to dog her even though an FBI investigation in July did not recommend charges should be brought against her, saying only that she had been “extremely careless”.
An investigation by the Associated Press, however, based partly on information it secured from the state department about Clinton’s schedule, found that donors from the foundation got meetings with her despite the fact that a firewall was supposed to have been in place to ensure the foundation remained completely separate from her office.
There is nothing to suggest Clinton facilitated any favours because of these meetings and the candidate herself has said the report was simply “a lot of smoke and no fire.” But that certainly won’t put a stop to Trump’s gallop in the debate and he has already seized on these developments to aggressively go after his rival.
But, as more and more disturbing information has emerged about his own foundation and questions about his tax returns and business dealings, he will need to be agile in deflecting the spotlight away from his own woes.
These include questions about fraud allegations surrounding his real estate courses at his self-styled Trump University, about debts he has built up with institutions like the Bank of China, and his failure to disclose his taxes as all White House candidates have done for the last 40 years.
The most explosive issue for him centres on a $25,000 contribution he made to the Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi at a time when she was being urged to investigate allegations against Trump University.
Subsequently, she decided not to proceed with an investigation, although separate investigations are under way in New York and California.
Both candidates will be asking similar questions about these issues — what might the other candidate have to hide and why, and what is the best way to demand answers without the issues backfiring.
She will ask why he’s not realising his tax returns and suggest he has something to hide about his financial dealings.
He gets rattled when questions are raised about his failed casino businesses in New Jersey and his relentless pushing of the birther movement that peddled the false notion that President Obama was not born in the US and therefore couldn’t be president.
This five-year-long effort sought to delegitimise America’s first black president with a conspiracy theory that propelled Trump into the political limelight but which he now disavows and wants to forget as he hunts for votes.
If they survive the September debate intact, the really key encounters will follow in the two debates a month later when an “October surprise” may emerge at the last minute when it may be too late for either candidate to recover with only weeks to go before the November 8 vote.
The second encounter on October 9 and the final debate on October 19 will be riven with tension, therefore, as both candidates will go into them with their antennae up for a potentially lethal surprise.
The most famous “October surprise” in US elections in modern times may or may not have actually happened and conspiracy theories still surround it.
It involved the 1980 election between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan during the Iran hostage crisis.
That crisis began on November 4, 1979, in the final year of Carter’s term, when 52 Americans were taken captive by Iranians after the storming of the US embassy in Tehran.
Carter worked feverishly right up to Election Day to have them freed but failed and Reagan went on to win the election.
Then, just 20 minutes after Reagan ended his inaugural address on January 20, 1981, Iran announced the release of the hostages.
The timing sparked allegations that some in Reagan’s campaign had conspired with Iran to delay the release until after the election to thwart Carter from pulling off an “October surprise” that might have won him re-election.
Subsequently, both houses of Congress held inquiries and concluded the allegations lacked supporting documentation. Nevertheless, since then, presidential candidates have been on their toes for any lethal last-minute surprise that could be hurled at them by their rival.
WHAT MIGHT IT BE
This year, in keeping with the evolution of modern media, an October surprise could well come in the form of a cyber surprise.
After all, this is an election in which hacking has already played a key part and sparked suggestions that Russia is playing a role in such hacking with the aim of trying to swing the election in Trump’s favour.
This may be a bit far fetched but anything is possible in this bizarre election. Even the FBI said last month it has “high confidence” that the Russian government hacked Democratic Party groups and the personal emails of a number of political operatives.
More recently the emails of former secretary of state Republican Colin Powell were hacked and revealed a number of his negative comments about both Trump and Clinton.
Indeed, Democratic leaders are already warning voters that any future mass leaks of embarrassing emails about the party and its presidential nominee might contain fake information inserted by Russian hackers.
House of Representative Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has echoed security experts who say Russian security services have been known to doctor documents and images or bury fictitious, damaging details amid genuine information.
Russia is also seen by some security experts as the possible conduit for information to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has made it clear he hopes to harm Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency.
Since 2012, Assange has been hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges.
He has been saying for some time that he has more emails connected with Clinton that he will release before Election Day, So for her on the day of one of the debates or in the days leading up to them, a potential cyber surprise could involve something potentially explosive from the emails on her private server relating perhaps to the Clinton Foundation. Clinton, however, is probably the most investigated politician in America and no probe has ever found a “smoking gun”.
For Trump, the surprise could be fresh revelations about Trump University or court rulings in the cases against him in New York and California.
Another problem for him could be the emergence of details about his income taxes. Indeed, back in March, Republican Mitt Romney accused Trump of not releasing his tax returns because they contained a “bombshell”.
Assange has also been challenged by a US television interviewer to expose exactly what’s in Trump’s tax returns. He responded that he would take up the challenge but later pulled back from the promise. It remains to be seen whether he’s since had a change of heart.
Then again, would any surprise that emerges, cyber or otherwise, harm Clinton or Trump? Voters seem to accept that neither candidate is exactly a paragon of propriety, although Clinton may be held to a higher standard and therefore have further to fall.
Nobel laureate and columnist Paul Krugman puts it like this: “There aren’t many efforts to pretend that Donald Trump is a paragon of honesty. But it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve. If he manages to read from a teleprompter without going off script, he’s being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn’t round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he’s moving into the mainstream.
“And many of his multiple scandals, like what appear to be clear pay- offs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention. Meanwhile, we have the presumption that anything Hillary Clinton does must be corrupt.”
But it all depends on where they are in the polls at the point at which anything new may emerge. If Trump is still rising in October a fresh incident surrounding Clinton could boost him or if he is falling it could stall that fall long enough to put his campaign back on track.
If Clinton, however, is rising in the polls an explosive allegation could very well dent her numbers and even land a blow that, while not fatal, could leave her badly wounded. She could end up still winning the presidency narrowly but taking over the White House under a possible cloud.
Trump could then step in and question the legitimacy of her win. This would be very bad news for Democrats, some of whom are on record as saying a Clinton win would need to be overwhelming in order “to smash the Trump movement”. Trump may not end up denying her the prize but if he manages in the debates to make it a closer race it could pave the way for him to add fuel to his already explosive suggestions that if he loses the race the elections have been “rigged” and bring his supporters out onto the streets.
Indeed, even if there is no October surprise during the debates and Trump continues to close the poll gap after the contests, it would be far easier for him to get his supporters to embrace the notion of blaming a “rigged” system or “voter fraud” for the loss.
His close confidante, Roger Stone, went so far as to say that the ensuing chaos would amount to a “bloodbath.” He put it like this: “I think he’s [Trump’s] gotta put them [Democrats] on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath…We will not stand for it.”
SITCOM VERSUS CLIMATE CHANGE
But the debates will be about more than the candidates themselves. The other key factor that will play into the encounters and help decide their impact will be the mood of voting viewers and whether they want to be entertained or informed.
Clinton undoubtedly excels in the smarts department and knows the minutiae of policy but it’s going to be far more difficult for her to boil it all down into easy sound bites.
Trump, on the other hand, will come to the debates unburdened by policy detail so one-liners will come more naturally to him and be delivered more fluently. His forte is as a reality TV performer, whereas she performs best as a policy purveyor.
Thus, if people are tuning into the debates because they want to be entertained, they’ll favour Trump and if they want to learn more about issues like college tuition or foreign policy they’ll favour Clinton.
It’s a bit like watching TV — after a demanding day it can be more relaxing to tune into a sitcom than to watch a forum on climate change.
And so far in this bizarre election, Americans seem to be opting for the sitcom over the forum.
But now, with just weeks to go before election day, the seriousness of what’s at stake may be finally dawning on them. If that proves to be the case, the debates will benefit Clinton. If not, they will benefit Trump.
Clinton will be hoping they will be tuning in for a serious discussion about the kind of country they want and the kind of person they want to lead it.
Trump, who eviscerated his Republican rivals in the primary debates with bombast and showmanship, will be hoping for a repeat performance in these encounters.
In his debate against Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gerald Ford said: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Carter went on to win that election.
In the vice-presidential debate in 1988, George HW Bush’s youthful running mate Dan Quayle compared himself to John F Kennedy but his patrician opponent Lloyd Bentsen shot back: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
In the 1992 presidential debate, the cameras caught Bush looking at his watch during the encounter with Bill Clinton and Independent Ross Perot. Clinton won that election.
That debate offered up another gem when Perot’s running mate, James Stockdale, began his opening statement by asking: “Who am I? Why am I here?”
In the 2000 debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore (above), Gore emitted a number of condescending sighs while Bush was speaking. Bush won that election.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton was asked how she would respond to voters who “liked Barack Obama more.”
Obama interrupted her answer to add: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
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