It promises to be the greatest show on earth: the first presidential debate to be held Monday night at Hofstra University in New York. Rarely has a political event attracted this kind of Super Bowl-level excitement, curiosity and anticipation. Then again, rarely have we had two presidential candidates who light up the political sky like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton has been on the national scene for nearly 30 years and carries all of the baggage of those tumultuous decades: endless scandals, ethical tightrope-walking, legal dodge ball, compulsive lying, slimy blame-shifting, bunker paranoia, the systematic selling of her offices for personal enrichment and the deliberate jeopardizing of the nation’s most sensitive secrets for her family’s gain.
She is like Pig Pen in the “Peanuts” cartoon: surrounded constantly by a cloud of corruption.
Viewers will want to see how this dangerous mess interacts with her opponent, who is clearly a political chess champion despite having just begun to play. It’s going to be Pig Pen versus the Master of the Universe.
We know what Mrs. Clinton will do, which is what she’s always done: lie, fabricate, deflect and distract. Boring and predictable.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is neither — and he has the advantage of being shiny and new. What he does with that opportunity is anyone’s guess. I suspect he’s been rope-a-doping everybody with the “we’re not doing debate prep, we’re just hanging out eating cheeseburgers” line and will, in fact, knock out Mrs. Clinton with his command of policy, her long record of failure and the positive agenda he embraces.
For a full TKO, Mr. Trump should do four main things.
First, he should emphasize his pragmatic vision for turning America around: moving to pro-growth economics, restoring law and order, rebuilding the military and a strong national defense, reigniting America’s influence and prestige internationally, and defeating the corrupt, rigged system (as embodied by Mrs. Clinton).
As a successful presidential candidate, he must offer voters a positive, compelling reason to vote for him, rather than just against his opponent. That’s why it’s critical for Mr. Trump to focus on his restorative agenda for the country.
Second, as a compliment to his optimistic vision, he must smash Mrs. Clinton, both as a failed “leader” pushing failed policies and a destructive leftist ideology and as a deeply corrupt individual who cannot — must not — be trusted with the presidency.
She will try to swarm him with policy details to try to demonstrate that he’s unprepared for the highest office in the land. She’ll try to sit above the fray, winking that she’s “been there, done that.” Well, yes. But the question is not whether she was in the game. It’s how she played it — and what results she produced. For her, the result was evermore power and a net worth of over $125 million. For the country, the result is that we are less wealthy, less prosperous, less safe, less secure, less powerful.
Mr. Trump doesn’t have to show an encyclopedic knowledge of every policy nuance. He simply has to point to the wreckage of the Obama economy and foreign policy and say: “We tried it your way.”
Third, he should “gaslight” her (hat tip to Alfred Hitchcock) by remaining totally cool and unflappable while calmly pushing on her vulnerabilities, from her disgraceful lack of integrity to her hypocrisy concerning women to standing by silently if she’s seized by one of her interminable coughing attacks.
This must be done with the greatest care, taking the Reagan approach of regarding her more in sorrow than in anger: “There you go again.” And he should call her Mrs. Clinton in order to link her to the deeply flawed boy who brought her to the dance.
For all of the talk about Mr. Trump’s alleged “thin skin,” she is extraordinarily prickly. She has never faced a tough election fight or been questioned aggressively or criticized to her face. If Mr. Trump can get under her thin skin, he could provoke a caustic response that will reveal the cosseted elitist behind the frozen smile. Witness candidate Barack Obama’s calmly delivered 2008 crack, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” The steam came out of her ears for days.
Finally, Mr. Trump must be a happy warrior. Most voters want to believe that he’s the guy not just to fix the country — but to restore their optimism with it. They want to know that he will fight the war for America’s future not as a burden but as a joyful privilege. If he can exuberantly convey that America can be saved — and that she is worth saving — he will not just win the debate but perhaps the election.
Into the ring they go. And in this ultimate reality show, we’ll all be watching what happens live.
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