Hillary Clinton has two important challenges in the final presidential debate on Wednesday in Las Vegas. Neither involves trying to discredit Donald Trump.
The first will be to respond to and explain what has been learned from the hacking of campaign Chairman John Podesta’s email account and other recent revelations. The second and perhaps even more important task will be to make a strong, affirmative and compelling case for a possible Clinton presidency.
Clinton’s strategy in the first debate was to poke and provoke Trump, knowing that his thin skin could be easily pierced and that, when it was, he would lose control, veer wildly off course from whatever message or pre-debate plan was in place and become his own worst enemy. She was as deft as she could be, though hardly subtle. Trump’s unraveling was no doubt even greater than she and her advisers had expected.
Her strategy in the second debate was — well, what exactly was it? Trump arrived reeling politically from the release two days earlier of the “Access Hollywood” video in which he spoke crudely about women and bragged of acts that would amount to sexual assault. Clinton didn’t have to do much in the second debate, and she crossed that lowered bar.
Reputable polls said she was judged the winner, although by a smaller margin than in the first debate. But those polls are mostly beside the point. Trump, despite his own problems, still had some effective exchanges with the former secretary of state. She parried — she long has been a skilled debater — but when it was over, how much had been learned about her?
The two candidates will arrive in Las Vegas in strikingly different positions. Trump again is on the defensive as one woman after another has come forward to challenge his claim on the stage in St. Louis that he might have talked about sexually assaulting or groping women but never did so.
The stories the women have told are remarkably similar — and consistent with what Trump bragged about in the video. The unshackled Trump — using his own words about himself — has responded angrily, defiantly, denying all. His supporters believe him. Many other people do not.
For Clinton, the temptation might be to play it safe on Wednesday and for the final three weeks of the campaign. If polls move more in her direction, her team will be tempted to try to expand the electoral map — to go after Arizona in a more serious way, for example — assuming they are confident they have nailed down many more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
The election is not over, and given everything that’s happened in this campaign, the unexpected should be considered the possible, if not the expected. Trump’s base is solid, but he seems stuck where he is, apparently unable to expand. He has to make up ground, not just hold the ground he occupies.
That leaves Clinton now as the more likely of the two to become the next president. If that happens, she will be faced with trying to govern a country that is not just divided but also raw with anger and resentment — and teeming with hostility across the political gulf that has opened up.
She has spent the summer and early fall focused primarily on one big thing — making Trump as unpalatable to voters as possible. She has 23 days of campaigning left to answer questions that people still have about her and to make the positive case for a Clinton presidency.
Chris Wallace of Fox News will be the sole moderator on Wednesday. He has a reputation as a tough and persistent questioner, just what is needed for the final debate. He will no doubt have plenty of questions for Clinton coming out of past and recent reporting about the Clinton Foundation, her use of a private email server and what she really believes about the issues.
Here’s one example. Clinton has said repeatedly that it was a mistake to use a private email server as secretary of state. She says she takes responsibility for the decision. But she has disputed FBI Director James B. Comey’s assertion that she and others were “extremely careless” in what she did. She has rejected charges that she or aides mishandled classified material. She’s said other secretaries used private email accounts. What does she think was the mistake, other than that it created a massive political headache?
From Podesta emails have come other questions — regarding her true feelings about trade and open borders, about regulations for Wall Street and big banks, about her campaign advisers’ views on Catholics and evangelicals. From elsewhere have come additional questions about whether Clinton friends and contributors got special treatment from the State Department.
Clinton’s campaign, rightly, has noted that the government believes the hacking of Podesta’s emails was the work of the Russian government, an alarming example of foreign interference in an American election and a chilling example of what awaits the next president.
The campaign has not acknowledged that the Podesta emails that were made public by WikiLeaks are authentic. But given that Clinton responded when asked about one aspect of them in St. Louis (it was a question about whether she has one position on issues in public and another in private), it seems campaign officials are not disputing their authenticity.
There is a telling email contained in the WikiLeaks dump. It came days before the New Hampshire primary that she was destined to lose to Bernie Sanders and days after she won the Iowa caucuses by a whisker. Her campaign was on its heels, principally because of widespread complaints that she had no message.
The email was written by Joel Benenson, the campaign’s chief strategist, to other senior staffers. He wrote: “Other than what she has been doing over the last few days, do we have any sense from her what she believes or wants her core message to be?” He went on to say, “The power of a strong message frame generally lies in a combination of simplicity and focus. . . . Sanders has simplicity and focus.”
At that time, Clinton made adjustments. Many of her supporters will say she’s offered the country a clear view of what she wants to do as president. She has reams of policy proposals. She has given major policy addresses. She offers one program after another. In classic Clinton style, she seems to have a program for every problem.
No one doubts her grasp of policy. Earlier in the campaign, policy discussions were blocked off for hours, rare for a presidential candidate. She was not one for a once-over-lightly look at what the policy team was advocating. She loves being in the weeds.
But there’s a difference between that and finding a way to explain positively why she wants to be president. George H.W. Bush called it, sarcastically, “the vision thing.” But the best politicians know it and find a way to project it. Clinton has struggled throughout the campaign to do so.
More than simplicity and focus are probably needed now. In the coming days, her campaign’s field operation will be speaking directly to every voter they deem likely to support her as part of a get-out-the-vote operation now in high gear.
The candidate must think of a much bigger and broader audience. Not necessarily those on the other side who hate her, but those who aren’t likely to vote for her but will be looking to elected leaders after the election to make the system work. At the end of an excruciating campaign that has tested and exhausted the entire country, she has little time left to lay a positive and hopeful foundation for a possible presidency.