By Jackson Omondi
The first of three debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be held on the 26th of September at Hofstra University in New York.
The bipartisan Commission for Presidential Debates rolled out the schedule and resoundingly overruled Trump’s suggestion of doing away with the moderator. Anchoring his allegations on “the system is rigged” theory, Trump made the case that the moderator would be biased and “favor Clinton.” The case, thankfully, was rejected and the voters will have a traditional debate.
Do presidential debates matter? You bet they do! For perspective, a little history will suffice. The year was 1960, fresh from a tough Democratic presidential primary battle against Texas Senator Lyndon B Johnson, a young flamboyant Senator from Massachusetts going by the name John F Kennedy, was engaged in a tough general elections campaign against the then sitting vice president Richard Nixon.
Both campaigns agreed to do something new: participate in a live, televised debate. Vice President Nixon arrived late on the set and rejected make-up – a decision that would come back to haunt him – while a well kempt Senator Kennedy, a Shakespeare fiend with exemplary oratorical skills got there early and was ready to go.
As the debate went on, Nixon’s sweaty face and stiff comportment stood in sharp contrast to Kennedy’s smooth delivery and confidence. When it was all over, the poll numbers revealed something that helped advance the need for TV debates. Those who watched the debate on TV, overwhelmingly thought that Kennedy won the debate while those who were listening on radio thought Nixon won the debate.
Nixon’s stiffness and the sweaty face, turned off some voters while Kennedy’s style won him legions of new voters. In the end, Kennedy emerged victorious in one of the closest elections ever. Political scientists argued that most Kennedy voters, made up their minds after watching him on TV. The Kennedy-Nixon debate is the mother of modern political debates.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s administration was caught in a diplomatic quandary with Iran. Americans at home were frustrated with what appeared to be a “weak” President as the Republican challenger Governor Ronald Reagan put it.
All Reagan needed was to be seen next to the incumbent and when that opportunity came in the debate, Reagan’s skill set as an excellent communicator helped edge out Carter enroute to a historic landslide that Republicans today, still remember like it was yesterday.
Now, with that in mind, let’s look at the dos and don’ts for the 2016 contest.
Hillary’s opening and closing statement must offer a clear contrast between her and Trump. She must make the case that she has been in theatre when life and death decisions are made and that she has the experience and depth to get things done. On Trump, she must portray him as a loose Canon, bawdy, unstable and too temperamental to be trusted with the nuclear codes.
She is the quasi-incumbent. Being an Obama alumni, she will be dubbed as the status quo candidate. It’s incumbent on her to reenact the DNC convention hug, lyrically speaking. She must proudly own Obama’s record, make the case that she is going to take it a notch higher since Obama’s eight years are not enough to cement most progressive agenda that Obama has already established some legwork on.
Hillary must keep it on policy. Like Obama said, no other candidate has been this ready for the presidency in generations. Her foreign policy chops are unparalleled. She must layout her vision with verifiable examples. Trump has zero foreign policy credentials. The contrast will be palpable.
She must speak like a President. For one to be President, the people must see it in you. Name dropping will do the trick. Hillary must invoke past encounters with world leaders while highlighting key areas where she played the lead actor.
Hillary must set up Trump and go for the jugular by going after his decision not to release his tax returns. An allegation that his refusal to release his taxes might be hinged on gross misrepresentation of his vaunted wealth can go a long way in making Trump lose his cool on national TV and throw away whatever support he may have garnered.
The Democratic nominee must not play Trump’s game of trying to out-Trump Trump. His primary opponents tried that and got clobbered. And for a good reason, Mark Twain once said that don’t try to argue with a stupid person because he will drag you down to his level and then beat you with experience.
Mrs Clinton’s own polling shows that she has a trust deficit, she must not hedge on tough questions. Clear answers will be helpful.
Lastly, she should avoid making news. Her polling and demographic advantages are intact, structural advantages are still there. All she has to do is let the strategists run out the clock until November 8th.
This is his golden chance to come out on national television and show the voters that he has what it takes to lead.
The Presidential Debates are the most watched on TV tv and Trump has the opportunity to tell the world that he is not what the people think that he is.
Trump must leverage on his business acumen to make the case that he has the experience to balance budgets and as a business magnate, he has made several tough calls that have changed lives.
He must now attach real policies to his hitherto blanket bromides that have inundated voters for the last two years. “Making America great” sounds good in theory but now he must put some meat on the bone.
The general election voters are not the same as the primary voters, they need more than slogans.
Trump must go after what a frustrated David Axelrod called “Hillary’s penchant for secrecy that is causing a lot of unnecessary problems.” Trump must tee off on the secrecy and force Hillary to get off script.
Trump must not attack Hillary’s gender. Thinly veiled misogynistic salvos like lack of stamina are strictly forbidden. Most independent voters break away after debates and Trump is struggling in that category. Any unnecessary jab can be fatal.
The Donald must avoid heaping minority communities as has been the case in the past. Statements like ” I love blacks, Latinos, Asians etc ” are huge political turn offs. Simply referring to them as Americans will get it done.
He must avoid dismissive gestures at the podium. Finger pointing, smirking and rolling eyes in a condescending manner will not go down well with the women watching around the country.
He must not brag about his fortune lest he inadvertently cues in Hillary for a brutal left hook via the tax returns noncompliance.
Trump must go to the archives and find the 2000 New York senatorial debate between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazzio.
In what appeared to be the last nail on Lazzio’s political fortunes, his confrontation and condescending demeanor on the debate stage led to a mass exodus of women voters and an electoral drubbing in the fall of 2000 and the then first lady became the New Senator from New York.
I will be back with a post-game analysis after the debate.
The Pythagorean Strategist