If you’re a political junkie like me — or, heck, even if you aren’t — you have been waiting a very long time for Monday night’s presidential debate. Estimates are that 80 million to 100 million people will watch — an amazing number given the splintering of TV viewership over the past decade.
Considering the expected audience and the perceived stakes — with polls showing Hillary Clinton narrowly ahead of Donald Trump — the amount of chatter around this first debate between the candidates is like nothing I have seen before. Cries of double standards, false equivalencies and real-time fact-checking are everywhere. In short, if you like spin, these past 96 hours or so have been a paradise for you.
Here’s the thing, though: There are details and specifics we know about Clinton and Trump as debaters — their approaches, tendencies and weaknesses. Clinton has participated in dozens of debates over her two presidential bids, and Trump debated a handful of times in his march to the Republican presidential nomination.
So what do we know about these two as debaters on the verge of the biggest moment of their political lives? Let’s break it down.
Clinton: As with most elements of her candidacy, she very rarely dazzles but hardly ever disappoints as a debater. She is always briefed on policy to the hilt and able to retrieve pertinent information when the moment requires it. If you close your eyes and think of the best student in your high school class — relentlessly prepared, always attentive — that’s Clinton in a debate.
Her preparedness occasionally works against her, as does her tendency toward lawyerly rather than political answers. Clinton can come across as overly rehearsed and sometimes get way too in the weeds on policy for a number of undecided voters. She also sometimes comes across as overly cautious and legalistic in the way in which she answers questions — a carefulness that her allies insist the moment demands and that her detractors view as Exhibit A in why they do not trust her.
Clinton’s biggest — and, if we are being honest, really only — major debate stumble over the past eight years came in the fall of 2007 during the Democratic primary season when she tried to delicately hedge her answer to a question on whether illegal immigrants should have driver’s licenses. Clinton seemed to say that she supported the policy of Eliot Spitzer (D), who was governor of New York at the time, to grant those licenses, then she rapidly reversed course. Her opponents — led by Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) — savaged Clinton over the wishy-washiness. That moment began a long erosion in her support that culminated with Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses.
Trump: Because he has never run for public office before, we have a relatively small sample to draw from to analyze his performance. That said, during the primary debates, Trump appeared to have only two settings: attack mode and disappearing mode.
In attack mode, Trump unleashed invective at whoever was in his way — regardless of whether it made political sense. (I distinctly remember a debate when Trump took a shot at Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was barely clinging to the stage and relevancy in the race.) Trump also goes into attack mode whenever he thinks he has been challenged or disrespected. His need to “guarantee” that he has “no problems down there” in response to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for his attacks referencing Trump’s hand size was vintage Trump in all-out attack mode.
Then there is disappearing mode. This is the side of Trump as debater that does not get talked about as much but was often on display in the primary debates. Trump had flashes of attack mode, but then, often as the debate wore on, he seemed to fade from the stage as other candidates debated policy specifics. Trump’s disappearing act was all the more remarkable because he was almost always smack dab in the center of the stage thanks to his strong position in the polls.
What Trump does well in debates is exactly what he does well as a candidate: He keeps his opponents guessing. His unpredictability — What will he say? When will he say it? — stands at the heart of his appeal and is incredibly difficult to prepare for. There is, after all, only one Donald Trump.
What’s the one thing that each candidate needs to do? Clinton needs to expose Trump as a policy lightweight and a dangerous potential president while avoiding coming across as overly prepared or sanctimonious. Trump needs to demonstrate some command of issues and resist being goaded into the sort of personal attacks that will almost assuredly backfire against Clinton.